Skip to main content

Midwife Mary Ann Leslie cradles six week old Emma Yang after a press conference about pay equity for midwives in Toronto on Nov. 27 2013.FRED LUM/The Globe and Mail

Ontario midwives are launching a human rights challenge against the province, contending gender discrimination in pay.

The application, to be filed with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario by the Association of Ontario Midwives on Wednesday, alleges that the province's Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care has set a discriminatory pay structure for midwives for the past 20 years.

"Canadians hold fairness and pay equity as an important value," said the association's policy director, Juana Berinstein. "We are asking the government to apply its own laws."

Ontario's Human Rights Code requires the government to provide equal treatment in employment on the basis of sex, and bans sex-based discrimination in employment contracts. But the tribunal has never determined whether the principle of pay equity – the obligation of employers to compensate jobs traditionally performed by women equally to comparable jobs traditionally held by men – applies to independent contractors such as midwives.

If the tribunal were to rule in the association's favour, it could pave the way for pay equity for independent contractors in other fields, said Mary Cornish, the lawyer for the midwives.

The province could also be on the hook for compensation owed to the midwives retroactively, said Larry Moate, a senior consultant and principle at compensation consulting firm McDowall Associates in Toronto.

An analysis commissioned by the association and performed by the Canadian Human Rights Commission's former director of pay equity, Paul Durber, concluded that midwives are paid only 52 per cent of what they should be earning – 91 per cent of the rates paid to their traditionally male counterparts, family practitioners at community health centres. He based his conclusion about relative pay scale on skills, efforts, responsibilities and working conditions.

"Essentially, midwives are being asked to work for free from July to December," Ms. Berinstein said.

A spokesperson for the ministry said there would be no comment until the application is filed.

"I do the job because I love the job," said Lisa Weston, midwife and president of the midwives' association. "But I don't feel valued for how much I give up. Midwifery is wildly popular right now, and this is equivalent work."

Midwifery is overwhelmingly female-dominated. Only one of approximately 700 midwives working in Ontario is male. Midwives and family practitioners each perform approximately 12 per cent of deliveries in Ontario. Obstetricians perform the rest.

While health-centre physicians' pay has increased 76 per cent since 1993, according to the analysis, midwives' pay has only increased by one-third.

Qualification as a midwife requires a four-year specialized university degree plus a one-year residency. Many midwives have additional degrees in public health or science.

"We're still very much an afterthought in the health-care system," Ms. Weston said. "We feel frustrated. Legal action is our last resort."