Women and Work in B.C. Series: The Link Between Education, Child Care, and Missed Opportunity

March 5, 2018
Denise Mullen

This is the fourth in a series of blogs highlighting the economic imperative of addressing gender equity issues across the full spectrum of market domains and organizational settings. The data are derived from a multi-year research project, which we will publish in April 2018. Update: The report, Women and Work: An Analysis of the Changing British Columbia Labour Market is available here.

Blog 1: Why the Gender Gap Matters
Blog 2: Who's In, Who's Out? The Participation Rate
Blog 3: The Part-Time Difference
Blog 4: Ms. Opportunity: The Link Between Education, Child Care, and Missed Opportunity
Blog 5: Women's Entrepreneurship and Self-Employment
Blog 6: The Rise of the Older Working Woman

Blog 4: Ms. Opportunity: The Link Between Education, Child Care, and Missed Opportunity

By Denise Mullen and Kristine St-Laurent

Great News!

The tale of women and education is a good news story in B.C.. Women are receiving more post-secondary credentials than ever before, and according to the latest data, the share of women with a bachelor’s degree or higher now exceeds that of men (26% and 24%, respectively).[1] Young women in B.C. between the ages of 25 and 34 years old are especially highly educated: 42% had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2016, nearly double the 2006 figure (24%). In comparison, although in 2006 young men’s post-secondary credentials matched young women’s, a decade later only 31% of men in the same age cohort held a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Women’s achievements in the post-secondary education realm are significant. But gender imbalances persist in certain fields of study. Men continue to outnumber women three-to-one in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, math) and computer science. The inverse is true for women and HEAL fields (health, education, administrative, literacy). While there is more work to be done to encourage women into computer science and STEM fields, it is encouraging to see that some companies are leading the way by actively seeking and engaging women in STEM. Microsoft, for example, runs STEM and computer coding outreach programs for girls and women.

While the underrepresentation of women in STEM-fields remains a cause for concern, the upside is that young graduates with HEAL skills — especially in health — are likely to find work that matches their education and provides higher-than-average salaries. Health and education skills are in high demand throughout B.C., and these jobs are among the lowest at risk of automation.

The Not-So-Great News…

A few facts to point out before we get to the rub:

Fact #1: Women’s employment earnings are, on average, still lower than men’s, despite increased educational attainment. Figure 1 below illustrates this point.

Figure 1: 2016 Wage Differences Across Canada

Source: CUPE.

Fact #2: Even though women are attaining higher levels of education than ever before, the 9-percentage point gender gap in overall labour force participation rates among prime age workers remains, having declined only slightly since 1990, as shown in Figures 2a and 2b. This is counterintuitive and somewhat surprising, as typically there is a strong correlation between education and labour force participation. Canadian women of prime working age are among the most highly educated cohort in the world. Yet, they aren’t participating in the labour force to the same degree as their peers in OECD countries with a similar share of highly educated women.

Figure 2A:
Labour Force Participation Rate
for Women and Men
with Post-Secondary Credentials,
1990 and 2016, 25-44 years old

Source: Statistics Canada, 282-0004.

Figure 2B:
Labour Force Participation Rate
for Women and Men
with Post-Secondary Credentials,
1990 and 2016, 25-54 years old

Source: Statistics Canada, 282-0004.

Fact #3: The labour force participation rate for women between 50 and 64 years of age is higher (67%) than the overall average for women (60%) – and it has nearly doubled since 1976. We’ll touch on this more in an upcoming blog in this series, The Rise of the Older Worker (link to come).

Figure 3: Labour Force Participation Rate, Women and Men 50-64 years old
1976 to 2016

Source: Statistics Canada, 282-0002.

So here’s the rub:

Educational attainment rates for women are rising, yet the labour force participation gap vis-à-vis men is the same for prime working age women – who also happen to be in their prime childbearing and child-raising years. This leads us to conclude that the explanation for the gap may partly lie in policy. Limited access to paid family leave and lack of available quality childcare may be factors inducing more Canadian women to drop out of the labour force, whereas the expansion of those very benefits in other OECD countries may have helped proportionally more of their international peers stay in.

When women opt out of the labour force, especially highly-educated and skilled women, it results in missed opportunities for families, businesses, and the economy. This begs the question: what can be done to encourage more women with children to enter and stay in the labour force, thereby leveraging the "motherload" of home-grown, highly-qualified talent? Expanding access to quality child care and early childhood education services would be a good start. In terms of universal child care, Quebec's experience suggests the costs are high for taxpayers. As such, finding ways to expand capacity that are less costly makes sense. Focusing on ways to support “Ms. Opportunity”— instead of missed opportunity —through the provision of accessible, quality child care can stimulate the economy, increase the size of the workforce at a time when demographic trends will be weighing on the overall labour supply, and provide talented women with more opportunities to choose work. We explore these issues in our paper, Tapping a “Motherload” of Opportunity: How B.C. Can Gain from More Accessible Childcare.

[1] Total population of each gender, 15 years of age and over.

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