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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne waits outside the Ontario Legislature on Feb. 20, 2018.

Chris Young

Advocates for gender equity praised Ontario legislation that will require greater transparency of salaries and other new rules as a necessary step toward closing the stubbornly large wage gap between women and men.

The legislation introduced on Tuesday, the first of any province in Canada, will require companies in Canada to include the salary or salary range in public job postings and bar employers from asking potential hires about their previous remuneration. It will also "prohibit reprisals against employees who discuss or disclose compensation." And it will require larger companies to collect data on wage gaps on various measures and post the information publicly at their workplaces and report it to the province.

The move is one that has been called for by groups such as the Human Resources Professionals Association and unions such as Unifor and expected to pass before Ontario's provincial election this spring. Companies on Tuesday indicated general support for equity between men and women, but some said they have to figure out what the new rules will mean.

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"It's unfortunate that we had to go to legislation to close the gender wage gap. The rate of progress has levelled off," said Tanya van Biesen, executive director of the Canadian arm of Catalyst, the organization that advocates for more women in the corporate world.

Ms. Van Biesen believes the legislation could be precedent-setting in Canada but noted: "It will depend on government of the day in each of the provinces."

Companies have preferred secrecy around salaries, as the void of information is an advantage for employers and a disadvantage for workers. An employee has no real way to see whether their wage is fair.

Research has shown the current system, which often includes employers asking hires about previous wages, is a particular disadvantage for women.

"Right now in workplaces, there is resentment and hostility because information is not shared," Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said as she detailed the bill on Tuesday. "There's suspicion about who is paid what. This policy is targeted exactly at that. I believe that people can deal with real information."

The wage gap in Ontario, the province has said, is wide: For every dollar earned by a full-time, full-year male worker, a woman in the same situation makes 74 cents – a gulf of 26 per cent. The figure has narrowed over time, but slowly. Three decades ago, the gap was 36 per cent, so in a third of a century the figure contracted by only 10 percentage points.

Canada as a whole ranks in the bottom quartile of member countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development on the gender wage gap.

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Wage transparency is already the law in Britain for companies with more than 250 workers. Gender pay gap reporting started last year. The transparency measures in Ontario will start with the province's public service and then extend to companies with 500 or more workers and later to all those with 250 or more.

Bill Morris, president of the Canadian arm of global consultancy Accenture, commended the legislation and was succinct in his views on the wage gap: "It's simply not fair." Accenture has made "getting to equal" a business priority, aiming for women as one-quarter of its managing directors by 2020 and a gender-balanced work force by 2025.

Mr. Morris specifically welcomed the new rule that disallows employers from asking interviewees about their previous salaries. "I found it strange that for years we've been able to ask how much they currently make," he said. "Frankly, it's not all that relevant."

Asking about previous wages can perpetuate a woman making less than a man through the person's career, said Catalyst's Ms. van Biesen. "We have structurally built in a gap," she said.

With the legislation landing fresh this week, companies are looking to understand it. The Business Council of Canada said it needs time to assess the bill. "Our position has been very much in favour of measures to close the gender wage gap and measures to encourage the promotion of women to senior management positions and boards of directors," said Ross Laver, a senior vice-president for the Business Council.

Unifor, Canada's biggest union, has lobbied for change to take on the gender wage gap. It has called for wage-transparency legislation. "We frequently find that there are many, many wage rates for doing the same job," the union said in a 2016 report. "It is our assessment that these differences are often based on favouritism and discrimination."

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Bill Howatt, chief research and development officer of work force productivity with consultancy Morneau Shepell, said government is needed to spur action.

"We've talked about gender equity for a long time and the research shows it's not happening," said Mr. Howatt. "Things don't self-correct. Males' salaries are on average higher than females. It's not right."

He said the rules around not asking about previous salaries and publishing wages in job ads will take time for some companies to adjust.

"It's all really positive," Mr. Howatt said. "But my concern, and it's not a negative, is there could be a learning curve for the average employer."

Fay Faraday, co-chair of the Fair Pay Coalition, which has been advocating for pay transparency, said the measures announced Tuesday were "timid" and applied to too few workplaces to be effective. The legislation should be changed to ensure all employers, not just large companies, must prove to the government they're paying fair wages to workers, she said.

Canada's Human Resources Professionals Association was part of Ontario consultations about the issue of the gender wage gap. The organization called for wage transparency rules. Scott Allinson, a vice-president at the association, said Ontario's legislation makes sense. "This is the easiest path for the government to deal with this issue," said Mr. Allinson. "As a taxpayer, this is the most responsible way of going forward, so we don't keep building on the problems of the past," he said.

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With a file from The Canadian Press

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