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Careers Forget deodorant commercials, we need real work to solve the wage gap

When Secret deodorant came out with its #StressTest commercial, in which a professionally dressed young woman rehearses in front of a mirror her demand for equal pay, it appealed to my sense of justice.

Like many other women who have advocated tirelessly to end the gender wage gap, I related to it on so many levels. Even the company's caption on the video – "Why are women still getting paid less than men when they're just as awesome?" – while cutesy, struck a chord.

It took a few moments before I realized I'd been had and that Procter & Gamble, Secret's parent company, is actually doing little in this commercial to narrow the wage gap. In fact, the underlying message in the commercial suggests that the wage gap exists simply because women don't ask for equal pay. Under all the emotional rhetoric, all Procter & Gamble is really doing is selling women's deodorant. (Ironic, especially considering that gram for gram, women's deodorant is usually priced higher than men's.)

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Unfortunately, when real recommendations are made to narrow the gender wage gap – as they were in Ontario by the Gender Wage Gap Steering Committee in June – they don't get the same viral attention as a well-placed and creative deodorant commercial.

Admittedly, it's challenging to make an issue like the gender wage gap sexy.

Part of the problem is that the concept still befuddles many, who argue women work fewer hours or take on less lucrative careers than their male counterparts. In fact, the gender wage gap refers to the idea that women do not achieve the same economic outcomes as men, given their levels of education and participation in the labour market, explained Emanuela Heyninck, pay equity commissioner for Ontario and one of the report's co-authors.

"There are many ways to measure the gender wage gap, many of which do account for hours of work and occupational choice. Even accounting for these factors, the gender wage gap exists at every level of job and across all sectors," Ms. Heyninck said.

While it may be tantalizing to latch onto a quick-to-comprehend ratio – a woman working full time in Canada makes 73.5 cents for every dollar a man makes, according to updated Statistics Canada income data produced for The Globe and Mail in March – the truth is that the gap varies depending on various factors, such as age and occupation.

In Ontario, the gap ranges from 14 per cent to 26 per cent, and is more pronounced for indigenous and visible-minority women and those with disabilities. While the gender gap has been narrowing over the years, lately that progress has stalled. For example, the hourly wage gap narrowed by four percentage points from 1997 to 2015, but it increased between 2014 and 2015, with men's average pay rising by 99 cents an hour while women reaped only 52 cents more.

It bears repeating that the gender wage-gap issue remains important, not only because it's an ethical issue but a clear financial one. The report includes research conducted by Deloitte for the Ontario Ministry of Labour that shows that a qualified woman, with the same socioeconomic and demographic characteristics – education, age and marital status – as a man received, on average, $7,200 less a year. That amounts to a loss of $18-billion of annual income for women, or 2.5 per cent of Ontario's annual gross domestic product.

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So how do we fix it?

The report lays out 20 recommendations but implementing just two – improving data collection and increasing transparency – would leave a significant mark.

The first includes encouraging companies to collect data about their own work force to determine whether a wage gap exists. If it does, companies should also figure out how and when the gap emerges. For example, Ms. Heyninck said that in some corporate cultures, women with caregiving responsibilities may be penalized and passed over for advancement or training opportunities, despite working full time and balancing these responsibilities. When it comes to caregiving, cultural expectations differ for men and women and, as a result, women are more likely to find themselves in part-time jobs.

Another important change would be greater pay transparency. While in our business culture, revealing an individual's compensation seems as if it were an infringement of privacy, precedents exist in unionized environments and in the public domain. Take, for example, Ontario's "Sunshine List" of provincial and municipal workers earning more than $100,000 annually, Ms. Heyninck said.

"Both of these examples have shown that pay transparency can be achieved without substantial harm. Some form of pay transparency will make it easier for workers to understand how they are paid, whether they are being paid based on objective, fair principles, and will enable them to engage in salary negotiations on a more level playing field," she added.

These are only two of the suggestions listed in the report that could have a major impact on the lives of women and families. While the report may not be as entertaining as watching a commercial, it will actually make a difference – no deodorant needed.

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Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) writes about workplace trends.

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