Women and Work in B.C. Series: Who's In, Who's Out? The Participation Rate

March 2, 2018
Denise Mullen

This is the second 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 2: Who's In, Who's Out? The Participation Rate

By Denise Mullen and Kristine St-Laurent

The term “labour force participation” has a specific meaning. It includes both full-time and part-time workers, as well as those who are not currently working but are looking for a job. All of these individuals are participating “in” the labour market. Full-time students and retirees, stay-at-home parents and people with disabilities who are not actively engaged in looking for work are considered to be “out” of the labour force. So are other individuals who have stopped looking for a job for one reason or another.

In terms of women’s labour force participation, a woman on maternity leave is still considered in the labour force if a return to her job is anticipated and/or her position is protected (regardless of whether her leave is paid or not). If she formally quits her job to take care of a child or other dependent, she is no longer in the labour force.

Sometimes labour force participation rates can fall for demographic reasons, such as a rising share of retirees exiting the workforce or a significant increase in the population of students enrolled in post-secondary education. But there is cause for concern when labour force participation rates fluctuate for what Statistics Canada refers to as “prime-age” workers — those between 25 and 54 years. Such variations can have wider economic consequences. Lower labour force participation may well lead to slower economic growth, sluggish productivity, reduced consumption, and fewer public tax dollars to pay for social services, health, infrastructure and other types of government spending. In terms of human capital, long breaks from the labour force make it more likely that a person’s skills will depreciate or, at the very least, that their skills don’t fit with what employers may be looking for. For individuals with prolonged periods of absence from employment, returning to work can mean more precarious and lower-paid work, fewer employer-paid benefits, and less seniority.

B.C. Context: Who’s In, Who’s Out?

Participation rate statistics for British Columbia start in 1976. The slope of the trend lines and the rates of change mirror overall national trends in Canada. As of 2016, total labour force participation rates for women and men over 15 were 60% and 69%, respectively.

Figure 1: B.C. Labour Force Participation Rates, 1976 to 2016
(>15 years old)

Source: CANSIM 282-0087.

The key takeaway from this chart starts around the early 1990s. Since then, women’s participation rates have remained constant, and there has been a stable gender gap.

Why is this so? It’s a bit of puzzle. Women and men enter the labour market in almost equal proportions, but there is a drop-off rate for women in their prime working years. At the beginning, young women between the ages of 15 and 19 may participate even more than men do in paid work, as indeed they did in 2016. The drop-off begins in the 20 to 24-year age group and reaches a peak between 35 and 49 years. The gap is only partially explainable by child rearing (as discussed in The Part Time Difference). It is not because of a lack of education, skills, or ambition; rather, the explanation may lie in policy and organizational human resource practices.

Table 1:
Difference in the B.C. Participation Rate of Women Compared to Men

Age Group Difference 1976 Difference 2016
15 to 19 years -4.7 7.1
20 to 24 years -18.9 -2.8
25 to 29 years -36.4 -5.3
30 to 34 years -42.3 -10.6
35 to 39 years -41.9 -11.1
40 to 44 years -41.7 -11.3
45 to 49 years -37.5 -11.1
50 to 54 years -43.9 -7.6
55 to 59 years -44.1 -6.8
60 to 64 years -36.0 -15.8

Reasons for labour force non-participation matter. The consequence of fewer women working is not just a women’s issue; it is an economic issue. A decline in the number of labour force participants – particularly of an increasingly better educated cohort – acts as a brake on the provincial economy.

We need to do more to understand the reasons why some women choose to opt out of work. Only then will we be in a position to devise strategies to fully tap into and apply the talents of the women who make up over half of British Columbia’s population and potential work force.

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