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It was disheartening to see some of the negative reactions to a recent proposal that free menstrual products should be available in all federally regulated workplaces.

There clearly remain a lot of misperceptions and ignorance about the challenges women face every day in the workplace.

Access to menstrual products is only one of them.

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Even in 2019, women are generally at a disadvantage in the world of work compared with their male counterparts, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Consider the facts:

Women – who make up 47.7 per cent of Canada’s workforce – are more likely than men to be heading out each day to work in precarious, low-paying jobs. Women are also often making less money than men for work of equal value. Women are less likely to have comprehensive workplace benefits, including drug coverage, vision care and dental care. Women are even more likely to struggle financially in retirement.

Furthermore, women in Canada continue to do the majority of unpaid household work, including caring for children and sick or aging relatives. Gender stereotypes are at the root of this disproportionate burden and have a demonstrated impact on hiring decisions and opportunities to advance at work.

Our economy’s reliance on women’s unpaid care work contributes to women’s poverty, affects mental and physical health, lifetime earnings and increased family stress. Our country’s rapidly aging population means that demands for caregiving are only going to increase over time. Therefore, without a significant investment in our already stretched public care services, we will be left with a care crisis and women will be the ones expected to pick up the slack.

I believe that fair working conditions and opportunities for advancement should be made available to all, leaving no room for discrimination on the basis of gender. If we really want women to succeed in the workplace, we need governments and employers to step up and be willing to break down the barriers that are holding them back.

What the federal government should do

The federal government should launch a federal task force on care work and care jobs in Canada. Such a task force would examine paid and unpaid care work and develop a federal strategy to meet increasing demands; reduce and redistribute women’s unpaid care work by improving access to public care services; and create a labour market strategy for care jobs.

The federal government has begun to set standards in legislation towards improved working conditions and addressing the challenges and needs of women workers. This must include ensuring all workers – regardless of whether they are full-time or part-time, temporary or casual, low-waged or hired through a temp agency – have equal terms, conditions and opportunities at work, and access to equitable wages and benefits.

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The government should also review and update the federal Employment Equity Act, improve mechanisms to hold employers accountable for their obligations and create resources to assist in examining workplace practices for unconscious bias.

What employers can do

Gender equality is good for business. Making work fair for women can help increase morale, benefit corporate image and boost the bottom line.

So where can employers start? With fair wages and employment security, so that every worker receives a wage they can adequately live on. Employers can also provide avenues to transition workers to permanent, full-time work and opportunities for training and promotion.

Employers should offer comprehensive workplace benefits to all employees, including access to a pension, disability insurance coverage and workers’ compensation.

Flexibility is key. All workers should have control over their schedules and the flexibility they need to balance work, family obligations and personal time. They should know what supports are available and that accessing them will not bring negative repercussions.

Employers can also promote fairness and equity by actively ensuring that there is an inclusive workforce, from recruitment to advancement in the organization. Policies designed to promote gender equality, diversity and inclusion should apply to all workers in the organization, in all job categories. Unless we improve the working lives of our most vulnerable workers, gender equality at work will remain elusive.

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The threshold for action shouldn’t be whether or not men think change is necessary. We must centre the voices of women – and they’re making it clear to us that far too many workplaces are failing them. Simply put, they are done waiting for fairness.

Hassan Yussuff is the president of the Canadian Labour Congress. Follow him on Twitter @Hassan_Yussuff

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