Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Nothing equal about treatment of men, women in 2009 federal budget

In theory, we’re all equals in Canada. But just follow the money in the 2009 federal budget for proof of the flaws in that argument, notes an Ontario academic.
Equality looks great on paper, which is why Canada has a Charter of Rights, wide-reaching human rights law, and its signature on just about every feel-good global declaration of oneness that’s out there. We’ve been particularly passionate in our calls for equality between men and women.
But there are the warm and fuzzy things that we tell each other, and then there’s reality. A gender analysis out of Queen’s University of the most recent federal budget is a sobering reminder of just how far Canadian women continue to lag behind men economically.
The analysis was done by Prof. Kathleen Lahey, a law professor with a speciality in tax. Twenty years ago when she took her first look at whether tax laws affect men and women differently, she was stunned to discover that women were routinely “overtaxed and underbenefited.” Virtually every tax analysis she’s done since then has reaffirmed that for her.
Canada’s 2009 budget demonstrates the problem. With its emphasis on tax cuts and rate improvements for those at the higher end of the income scale, its “stimulus” measures bypass 40 per cent of Canadian women, says Lahey. They simply don’t earn enough to benefit.
Women will also miss out on much of the new money for infrastructure projects earmarked to help Canadians weather the recession, adds Lahey. The industries that will benefit primarily employ men; just seven per cent of Canada’s construction and trades workers are female. (Read Lahey’s analysis at http://www.progressive-economics.ca/2009/01/31/gender-analysis-of-budget-2009/)
Many of the issues Lahey identifies in her analysis are applicable to anyone in a lower income bracket. But women are more likely to be in that category than men, and so end up disproportionately affected.
The average income for women in Canada is just $27,000 a year, compared to $45,000 for men. The disparity is even more noticeable among single-parent families, with single moms and their children living on little more than half the income that single dads earn ($30,900 versus $58,300).
The budget made improvements to Employment Insurance benefits, but not in a way that helps women, says Lahey. Since 1996, people working less than 35 hours a week don’t qualify for benefits. That shift hit women significantly harder than men, because women do more part-time and seasonal work. The most recent enhancements improve things for those who qualify for EI - three-quarters of whom are men - but do nothing to help more people get benefits.
Flat taxes like the new carbon tax and provincial sales taxes also hit women harder, notes Lahey. A five per cent goods and services tax may sound like equal treatment for all, but such taxes in fact have a much greater impact on people with less spending power.
Why do women consistently earn less than men in Canada? We must have dissected that issue at least a thousand different ways by now, and once believed the answer was simply to push enough women through the various glass ceilings and discriminatory hiring practises getting in their way.
But the issue is more complex than that. Women are the ones who bear children, and are most likely to be the primary caregiver when children are small. We make different choices around the kind of work we do.
The jobs that women do also tend to pay less than traditional male jobs.
We could argue for years about why that’s so - and we have. But none of it has brought us closer to rectifying the situation. We may talk a good game about getting down to the business of “equal pay for work of equal value,” but the concept terrifies government and employers.
As for encouraging women to do more of the kind of work that pays well - men’s work, in other words - well, it’s good to try. We certainly need more women at the top. But all our efforts to get them there are for naught unless we can do something about the many women who crack the glass ceiling only to realize they hate everything about their new life.
Sexist tax policy can only make things worse, says Lahey. She thinks it’s time for women to “get over their dislike of tax policy” and learn enough to fight back.
“This is systemic,” Lahey says. “The direct spending and tax cuts in the federal budget simply reinforce inequalities between men and women.”

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