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Economists are calling it a “she-cession.”

Women are being hit hard by the economic crisis caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, comprising nearly 63 per cent of job losses in March. Among those who kept working, women also lost more hours than men. That’s likely the tip of the iceberg since more businesses were shuttered in April.

This recession is not only amplifying gender disparities in the work force, it’s also highlighting the steep price Canada pays for political inaction. Women’s financial insecurity is worsening the economic shock. Accordingly, as legislators prepare to kick-start the economy, they must prioritize women and combat workplace gender discrimination if they’re serious about generating new GDP growth.

Closing the pay gap is an obvious place to start when women’s incomes are at risk. Taking the first steps require little effort by either Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or Ontario Premier Doug Ford. Both have pay equity legislation – Ottawa’s Bill C-86 and Ontario’s Pay Transparency Act (Bill 3) – that both received royal assent in 2018 but are still not in force.

Get it done already. Women have been waiting decades for pay parity and our outdated laws, including the Canadian Human Rights Act and various provincial statutes, have failed to close the gap. In 2018, women earned 87 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to Statistics Canada.

There is no reason why women should be earning less. Women make up more than half of postsecondary graduates (56 per cent of bachelor degrees, 51 per cent of master degrees and 58 per cent of college graduates, according to the Conference Board of Canada). That’s despite all the societal nonsense women face along the way.

Canada’s economy suffers when women are shortchanged. Closing the pay gap would increase Canadian women’s earnings by about US$78.6-billion, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. That would significantly increase purchasing power. If Canada increased its female employment rate to Swedish levels, it would increase GDP by 5.7 per cent or US$101-billion.

As for Ontario, the government’s own reckoning shows that improved gender equality could add as much as $60-billion to the province’s GDP. It would also reduce the strain on social services.

“There’s absolutely no reason for delay,” Kevin Thomas, chief executive officer of the Shareholder Association for Research and Education, said of Ontario’s Pay Transparency Act. “All it awaits is proclamation. If the government agrees that women should get paid fairly, and I hope they do, it’s time to show it.”

But instead of proclaiming the Pay Transparency Act – which aims to eliminate gender bias in hiring, promotion and pay – the Ford government decided to stall it. After all, it was a pet project of the previous Liberal government.

Following the 2018 election, Mr. Ford, a Progressive Conservative, introduced Bill 57 which indefinitely postponed the Pay Transparency Act (it was supposed to take effect on Jan. 1, 2019), and launched another public consultation.

“There is currently no set date for proclamation,” Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development said in a statement. It added: “Everyone deserves equal pay, regardless of their gender. This is the law and has been so since the Pay Equity Act was passed in 1987.”

What a whitewash. Ontario’s existing pay equity law is full of loopholes. The Pay Transparency Act, if in force, would have required businesses to include the expected remuneration or compensation range in job postings. Employers would also be prohibited from seeking a job applicant’s compensation history, which perpetuates lower pay for women.

Additionally, companies would be banned from disciplining or dismissing employees who disclose or discuss pay disparities at work. Companies with 100 or more workers would also be required to post annual pay transparency reports on the compensation differences between men and women.

Sadly, women expect little of Mr. Ford. He also stymied the Ontario Securities Commission’s plans to improve women’s representation on boards and in senior management at publicly traded companies.

Further, he cancelled a planned increase of Ontario’s minimum wage (to $15 from $14) that would have largely helped women now deemed essential workers. “That was the biggest slap in the face to women,” said Armine Yalnizyan, an economist and Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers. “Women’s work is so systemically undervalued in the marketplace.”

It’s also a bad look for Mr. Trudeau. He branded himself a feminist, but in 2016 chose to delay the introduction of pay equity legislation for years. Pay equity provisions were later included in Bill C-86, which received royal assent in December, 2018.

But the provisions, which apply to federally regulated workplaces, such as banks, airlines and telecom companies, are not yet in effect. Ottawa is still developing regulations to bring them into force.

“In light of the COVID-19 situation in Canada, resources and regulatory priorities have shifted to address the pressing needs of this pandemic and, as a result, the government is currently unable to offer a timeline," stated Employment and Social Development Canada.

That means more delays for women because when the legislation finally takes effect, employers will have another three to five years to close the wage gap.

Governments need to make women a priority for the economic recovery. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Ford, it doesn’t take big ovaries to do the right thing. But get a move on. This “she-cession” isn’t going to solve itself.

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