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In January, thousands of women and men made history by partaking in women's marches across the globe, highlighting issues ranging from women's sexual and reproductive rights to earning a living on minimum wage. It may surprise some that North America is still grappling with these issues in 2017, but the reality is women continue to face gender discrimination in all the ugly forms it takes, one of which is income inequality and gender wage gap.

According to a UN report, women's income globally would increase by up to 76 per cent if the employment and wage gap between men and women were closed. This gap is estimated to have reached $17-trillion (U.S.). Of 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada had the seventh-highest gender wage gap in 2014. According to an Oxfam report, women are paid less than men across all job sectors in Canada, accounting for 469 out of 500 occupations monitored by Statistics Canada. The wage gap in Ontario alone shows that a woman would have to work 14 additional years to achieve the lifetime earnings as a man by the age of 65.

The cause of the wage gap remains far from clear cut, with reports ranging from women choosing occupations with inherently lower wages and working fewer hours, to maternity leave and the lack or high cost of child-care services; the list goes on. However, solving the wage-gap issue will require the active participation of men and the private sector to ensure that women reach their fullest potential, both within the work force and outside of it.

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Related: Gender pay gap a persistent problem in Canada: Statscan data

The private sector plays a crucial, often undermined, role in ensuring wage equality. This could be done by encouraging women in leadership positions, creating inclusive working environments, diversity training, identifying talent, offering leadership programs and so on. Fortunately, there is no shortage of solutions. The "tools" are right in front of us, we just don't know how to use them.

Although the private sector might have these tools along with the best of intentions to use them, these intentions are often outweighed by the challenges they face. Some of the challenges include lack of awareness, red tape, difficulties in digesting and incorporating relevant diversity inclusion policies within their policy frameworks, and simply not knowing where to start from. Most importantly, fear of publicly disclosing existing (or lack thereof) gender equality practices and the reputational harm that could occur, serve as deterrents for companies to even attempt tackling the issue.

A first step to engaging the private sector would be to drop the accusatory tone as it discourages any productive synergy to achieve a common goal. A second step would be a sharp shift in mentality and elimination of the misconception that wage gap and gender inequality is a purely social matter. This misconception is dangerously erroneous, since wage equality not only benefits corporate growth, but also promotes global economic prosperity. A McKinsey Global Institute report indicates that if women played an identical role in labour markets to that of men, as much as $12-trillion could be added to the global economy.

Finally, to move the needle on the wage gap, we need to stop undermining the role men play in this conversation. For the male readers: gender inequality is as much of a "male" problem as it is a "female" one. Women are your sisters, your mothers, your wives and your daughters. How can they ever win the fight without the support of their most important ally? We still haven't shaken off the preconceived notion that gender equality is solely a woman's issue fought by women for women, which in turn keeps breeding the problem. If men are not actively engaged in overcoming gender inequality, how can we ever achieve wage parity?

The crucial role of men in promoting gender equality has been recognized and put down on paper too many times, dating back to 2004 with the agreed conclusions on the role of men and boys in achieving gender equality of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. We do not need more UN-agreed conclusions to remind us how important the role of men is in achieving gender equality. What we need is more male voices.

At the end of the day, equal pay and gender equality is a choice that we have the power to make. We will either realize how imperative it is to our growth as a society, both morally and financially, or we will reduce it to gender quotas and statistics that are simply used for just another "interesting" topic of conversation. Whatever the choice, it lies with us.

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Mariefaye Bechrakis is a human rights and gender equality consultant at the Global Compact Network Canada. Helle Bank Jorgensen is president of Global Compact Network Canada.

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