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Why isn't Canada a feminist utopia?

Top jobs are universally male-dominated. In response, feminists push for state-subsidised childcare, more involved fathers, and greater support for gender equality. But Canada has already embraced these initiatives, women work at very high rates, yet its senior management remains 64% male. So what’s stopping women from getting to the top?

Unaffordable Childcare?

We should expect female labour market participation and advancement to be lower if childcare is prohibitively expensive. State-subsidised daycare could help mitigate “the motherhood penalty”. Quebec introduced subsidised daycare back in 1997. It also introduced 5 weeks of paternity leave, adopted by 84% of fathers. Yet female share of senior management still remains lower than the national average (28% versus 36%). At national level, the government budget has stepped up funding to ensure universal access to $10 daycare. I will be curious to learn if this reduces men’s hold of top jobs.

Statistics Canada 2023

Disengaged Dads?

Canadian fathers are highly involved. Compared to Americans, they’re more likely to provide warmth and emotional support.

Shafer 2021

Canadian women continue to shoulder the lion’s share of childcare, but this averages less than two hours a day.

Moyser and Burlock 2018

Time-use data on gender gaps is slightly misleading (in my opinion), because it only ever includes couples and neglects single mothers who do 100% of childcare. Yet here again Canada scores as very gender equal. 70% of Canadian children live in intact two parent families, only 16% live with a female lone parent. Compared to the US, Canadian fathers provide more support.

Low female employment?

Canada did have a large gender gap in employment back in 1976. That’s now changed. Female labour force participation has outpaced the US.

Full-time work is a crucial precursor to seniority. As Claudia Goldin remarked on our podcast, “If you're part-time, it's not going to be easy to make partner. If you're part time it's not going to be easy to get a big first promotion in management, and we know that European countries for some good reasons have a greater ability to work part-time than in the U.S, but there is a price that gets paid”.

But 80% of Canadian working women are working full-time. So what’s stopping them from getting ahead?

Claudia Goldin 2022


All the available data suggests that Canadians strongly support gender equality. The overwhelming majority of Canadians disagree that a working mother causes a pre-school child to suffer. They also reject the notion that men are better business leaders.

Attitudinal data is prone to social desirability bias. So let’s triangulate by looking at revealed preferences.

In 2015, Justin Trudeau introduced a gender-balanced cabinet. This was supported by the vast majority of Canadians: 74% (including 40% of Conservatives). No uproar, no backlash. That sharply contrasts with the misogyny hurled at presidential-hopeful Hilary Clinton.

So what’s going on?

Canadian women demonstrate strong labour market commitment, fathers are exceptionally engaged, the state subsidises daycare, and compatriots champion gender equality. So what on earth maintains men’s predominance of top jobs?

Greedy jobs?

Top jobs demand long hours and tight deadline. Toronto’s Financial District burns the midnight oil, while childcare centres close at 6. Moreover, parents may want someone to be at home for dinner, bath and bedtime. As Claudia Goldin argues for the US, mothers usually pursue work with greater flexibility. This jeopardises their pay, productivity and shot at promotion.

Goldin’s theory is very persuasive, but it still doesn’t explain why senior management is more male-dominated in Canada than the US (64% vs 57%).

Maximum Hours Regulations?

Canada and the European Union both have working time directives, proscribing anything more than 48 hours a week. This may affect gender inequalities, varying by class. In their cross-national analysis of the EU, Iversen, Rosenbluth and Skorge (2020) suggest that strict enforcement of maximum hours regulation helps close the gender pay gap among non-managerial workers, because care-free men are unable to gain competitive advantage by working ultra long hours. However, because hours are capped, careerist women cannot demonstrate their exceptional commitment. Employers may thus maintain their gender stereotypes and apply statistical discrimination. Iversen and co-authors suggest that these restrictions remain in place because it is supported by non-managerial women, who benefit from greater parity in pay. Their study exploits cross-national variation within the European Union. Since there is no exogenous shock, it’s impossible to demonstrate causal inference. Economists may be unpersuaded. It’s an interesting hypothesis, however. It pushes us to recognise intersectionality: what closes gender pay gaps among workers may not mitigate sexism in managerial promotions.

Iversen, Rosenbluth and Skorge 2020

If Iversen and colleagues are right, what’s the solution? How might we correct employers’ sexist presumption that men are more willing to work long hours? Well, if employers are unable to recognise female talent or detect their commitment, one straight forward solution is to stop this male rent. Impose gender quotas in management.

On the other hand, if Goldin is right, then the WFH revolution and greater flexibility might be enough to catalyse gender parity in promotions. Ultimately, it’s up to Canadians. I merely share this as a fascinating conundrum, helping us identify intersectional bottlenecks to gender equality.

Why isn’t Canada a feminist utopia?

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