We're Better Off When We're All Better Off

March 8, 2017
Denise Mullen

Hey girl! We’ve come far. Over the last century women have made indisputable advances in the socio-economic sphere. In honour of International Women’s Day, we’d like to highlight a few points that showcase women’s progress and the need to continue with policies that aim to grow talent—because we’re all better off when we’re all better off.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in BC – and we did not stop there. BC leads the country on the journey towards political gender parity, with 38% (32 out of 85) of the seats in the BC Legislative Assembly held by female MLAs and 10 female ministers out of 23 in the current cabinet, including the Premier. In Ottawa, women make up 88 of 338 elected Members of Parliament (26%) and fill 50% of Cabinet slots in the government. While considerable progress has been made, there is still work to do. The United Nations recommends a minimum 30% political representation to reach the “critical mass” believed necessary for women to make a visible and sustained impact on political decision-making. In this regard, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, Canada ranks 49th out of 144 countries for female political empowerment.

Education is a notable success story for women in Canada. The World Economic Forum ranks Canada #1 for female educational attainment. Among millennials aged 25 to 34, women hold a solid majority of the university degrees granted (59.1%). This is an impressive gain over baby boomers (aged 55 to 64), among whom 49.3% of university graduates are women. Even more remarkable are the advances made in the field of medicine. Women account for 62.2% of millennials aged 25 to 34 with a medical degree, compared with just 28% among those aged 55 to 64 with the same credential. Younger women have also made inroads in science-technology-engineering-mathematics (STEM) related degrees, with millennial women representing 39.1% of university STEM degrees compared to 22.6% of baby boomers.

Source: National Household Survey, Education and Labour, 2011.

Women have also made steady advances in the workforce. A look back over 40 years of BC data shows the gap between male and female labour force participation rates narrowing to 9%. Improvements, however, have plateaued over the last 15 years, and the distribution and trends are uneven across age groups. The labour force participation rate for women aged 15 to 19 is declining,[1] while participation rates for women aged 20 and older have increased. At the same time, participation rates have trended lower for all age groups of men, except those 65 and older.

Source: Table 282-0002 Labour force survey estimates (LFS), by sex and detailed age group.

Meanwhile, BC First Nations women have pulled ahead of their labour market peers and now have a higher rate of participation (66%) than women overall in BC (60%).[2]

Source: CANSIM Table 282-0226 Labour force survey estimates (LFS), by Aboriginal group, sex and age group, Canada, selected provinces and regions, annual.

The advances made by women since 1976, however, do not apply to all. Canadian immigrant women have slightly lower labour force participation rates (57% vs 61% average for Canadian women[3]) and experience higher unemployment rates (7.7% vs. 6.2 % average for Canadian women). Relatively high unemployment and underemployment in the female immigrant labour force is a missed opportunity, as 73% of these women have post-secondary credentials — 30% have a diploma or certificate, and 43% have university degrees.[4]

Sources: Table 282-0106 Labour force survey estimates (LFS), by immgrant status, educational attainment, sex and age group; Table 282-0002 Labour force survey estimates (LFS), by sex and detailed age group.

Two key factors will shape long-term growth in the BC economy: our productivity performance, and the extent to which the labour pool expands. The latter may happen either by adding talent or by finding better ways to tap and expand the potential of those already in the workforce.

To remain a competitive economy, we must strive to increase labour force participation among all groups. Continuing to push for greater gender parity can help to support women’s expanded role in the economy and labour market. Immigrants are an important source of talent and help to fill the gap left by a low natural birth rate and an aging population. Overcoming language barriers and taking steps to accelerate credential assessment for new immigrants are key goals. With a steadily aging population and the swelling ranks of retirees in BC, increasing First Nations workforce participation is also necessary, particularly in smaller, resource-dependent communities where the local working-age population is declining. Lastly, declining male participation in the labour market is a cause for concern. Changes in employment opportunities based on shifts in technology need to be countered with proactive training and upskilling policies.

There is still much more to do to ensure we all have opportunities to participate in the economy.

[1] This is not really a bad thing, as it reflects in large part the fact that more women in this age group are in school.

[2] This partly reflects the younger average age of First Nations women compared to the non-First Nations population.

[3] Data is not available to compare Canadian immigrants residing in BC to Canadian women residing in BC, so we can only compare labour force data at the national level. For reference, in 2016 BC women had a 60% participation rate and experienced 5.5% unemployment.

[4] Table 282-0106 Labour force survey estimates (LFS), by immigrant status, educational attainment, sex and age group, Canada, annual.

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