Why the gender gap matters
Denise Mullen and Kristine St-Laurent - Mar 08 - Columnists

Image: Contributed

In honour of International Women’s Day, Okanagan Edge today presents the first of a series of blogs examining the place of British Columbian women in the workplace.

Penned by authors at the Business Council of B.C., the six-part series explores issues such as the gender pay gap; women’s labour force participation; the link between education, child care, and missed opportunities; and women’s entrepreneurship and self-employment.

As the president of BCBC points out, “women’s labour force participation is not simply a women’s issue. It is a complex topic with broad economic impacts.”

In this series, authors Denise Mullen and Kristine St-Laurent break down some of those impacts, starting today with the gender gap, and why it matters.

Part 1: Why The Gender Gap Matters

Image: Statistics Canada
BC Labour Force Participation Rates, 1976 to 2016

In both BC and Canada, the proportion of women aged 15 and over who participate in the labour force remains 9 percentage points below that of men.

Why does this matter?  Because the data show that boosting women’s labour force participation can contribute to three desired outcomes: stronger economic growth, the narrowing of skills gaps, and reducing poverty, particularly for children.

Women are the primary caregivers for children and adult dependents; they also continue to provide most of the unpaid work in our economy, which can limit their capacity to engage in paid work.

A nine-point participation rate gap might not seem like much at first, but consider this: a 2017 study by McKinsey notes that lowering barriers to women’s work in Canada could lead to potential GDP gains of $150 – $420 billion by 2026.

Even the lower estimate represents a sizable addition to economic output.

In 2017, Canada ranked 16th out of 144 countries in the 2017 Gender Gap Index, an annual analysis of gender parity conducted by the World Economic Forum.

Although our ranking has vacillated over the years, the upward trend line is encouraging—on average, a 7 per cent improvement year over year since 2006.

While Canada performs better than many other countries, BCBC’s data-driven analysis suggests there is room for improvement to ensure the fullest opportunity for women to participate in and grow with the province’s economy.

In this regard, the reasons for women’s non-participation in work matter.

Women in B.C. today are better educated than at any other time in history, and yet the participation rate gap has stayed essentially constant for nearly three decades. This is a surprising outcome, given that higher education levels are normally associated with increased workforce participation and steady attachment to the labour market.

Some, but not all, of the participation gap no doubt reflects the fact that women are still primarily responsible for looking after children and adult dependents.

Many B.C. employers are increasingly concerned about access to talent, and rightly so: over the next decade, the province’s economy is expected to have 917,000 job openings. Attracting more British Columbians into the workforce, especially educated women, could help to narrow the skills gap by up to 15 per cent.

In sum, women’s labour force participation is not simply a women’s issue. It is a broader business concern.

A robust economy depends on taking advantage of skilled talent and expanding the productive workforce. If women are opting out or not participating this signals a lost opportunity. By understanding and acting to remove barriers to women’s participation, the economy will be stronger and more resilient.

In the end, making the most efficient use of the potential labour force, in particular women, can make the difference between companies and countries that perform well and those that don’t.

The Business Council of British Columbia aims to produce timely and exceptional public-policy research and advice on issues to enhance B.C.’s competitiveness and prosperity. As a collaborative, non-partisan organization, the council strives to be a venue where members, policy experts, elected officials, and government decision-makers can address problems and form solutions together. 

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