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The Question

I am a professor at a major Canadian university. I’m also a woman and a visible minority. I have many awards and I am widely published. However, I am the lowest-paid professor in my faculty. White, male associate and even assistant professors are paid more than me – up to 30 per cent more. Their output is a fraction of my output. When I try to raise the subject, I am told the university is only obliged to pay me the minimum salary. Is this legal?

The First Answer

Melissa Rico, partner, Carbert Waite LLP, Calgary

Pay equity is defined as equal pay for work of equal value. The issues you are facing of a racial and gender pay gap have been gaining attention worldwide, with various initiatives aimed at finding solutions to bridge the divide. In your situation, there are a number of options to consider.

In Canada, there is pay equity legislation in six provinces which impose pro-active obligations on employers to address the issue of wage discrimination. Dependent on where you live, you may be able to commence a complaint under the applicable legislation. In Ontario, you can make a complaint to the Pay Equity Commission of Ontario. But in Alberta, there is currently no pay equity legislation. Typically, provincial pay equity legislation applies to public sector employees. There is also a federal statute, the Pay Equity Act, that introduces a pro-active pay equity regime applicable to federally regulated workplaces.

The second option is applicable if you are a unionized employee. In that case, you should review your collective bargaining agreement for any provisions specific to pay equity. If there are, you could commence a grievance under your collective bargaining agreement.

Finally, all Canadian provinces and territories have human rights legislation which provide protection from discrimination on an enumerated ground, including race, colour, ethnic origin, gender identity and sex. Employers are prohibited from making decisions based on an enumerated ground and you could file a complaint under the applicable human rights legislation.

There are time limits on when you must file your complaint, typically being one year from the date of discrimination. Every situation is unique and it would be beneficial to seek advice from an employment lawyer.

The Second Answer

Lai-King Hum, founder and senior lawyer, Hum Law, Toronto

Recent studies have highlighted pay gaps between male and female professors, some suggesting racialized women have the widest gap. What you describe may contravene laws against discriminatory pay practices.

In Ontario, the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (“ESA”), Pay Equity Act (“PEA”), and the Human Rights Code (the “Code”) protect employees against such discriminatory employment practices. Other jurisdictions have similar legislation.

The ESA requires that, regardless of sex, there be equal pay for substantially the same work requiring substantially the same skills, unless the rate of pay is based on a seniority and merit system. The university may rely on these exceptions to justify paying you less than your professor colleagues, saying sex and race were not a factor.

The PEA addresses systemic sex-based compensation discrimination, obliging employers to give female job classes pay comparable to male job classes of similar value. You might make a complaint to the Pay Equity Commission, for being paid less as a professor than the male associate or assistant professors.

If there is no legitimate basis for the pay gap, you might also file an application with the Human Rights Tribunal and claim damages under the Code, for discrimination against you in the workplace on the prohibited grounds of sex and race.

It is not possible to know for sure if this is a discriminatory practice here without more information. We encourage you to seek legal advice. Many university professors are unionized: if so, you might also consult your union representative.

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