Research on gender pay gap could guide policy-makers’ equity goals

The gender pay gap is a complex global issue that has attracted attention in the academic world for decades. In 2018, it made headlines in Hollywood, thereby entering public consciousness in a new and profound way. In Ontario, three decades after pay equity legislation was introduced, the gender pay gap is still wider for marginalized women – a point specifically raised in a 2015 United Nations (UN) report.

A new study by York University graduate Roopkiran Kohout and Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies Professor Parbudyal Singh digs deep to discover why this is happening and what can be done about it. The duo interviewed 23 women defined as marginalized (racialized and/or new immigrants/women of colour).

Woman standing on a street with arms crossed
New research digs deeper into gender pay gap in Ontario

“Our paper uncovers the lived experiences of these women and seeks to address the underlying causes to better understand the effects and, ultimately, to assist in searching for answers,” Kohout explained.

Parbudyal Singh
Parbudyal Singh

Kohout graduated from York with a master’s in public policy, administration and law and a graduate diploma in justice systems administration, and now works in the Ontario public service. Singh is an expert in human resources management.

The findings of this study, published in Gender in Management (2018), could pave the way for policy-makers to view equity through a different lens.

Gender pay gap in Canada raised by UN

Canada is a leader in equity. However, a 2015 UN human rights report raised concerns about the continuing inequalities between women and men in this country, citing the wage gap and its disproportionate effects on low-income women, visible minorities and Indigenous women.

This UN report called on the Canadian government to “[…] strengthen its efforts to guarantee that men and women receive equal pay for work of equal value across its territory, with a special focus on minority and Indigenous women.”

Research builds on existing knowledge, adds something new and unique

Existing research tells us that marginalized women in the workplace increasingly appear to be the most in need of protection and yet the least likely to receive it. Kohout and Singh sought to know more about this. In approaching this large and systemic issue, they focused on Ontario because this province is a leading jurisdiction in implementing legislation relating to pay equity.

The authors selected a qualitative approach. They conducted 23 interviews to truly understand the lived experiences of marginalized women in the workplace and examine the experiences of these women in achieving equal pay for work of equal value.

In this way, the study adds to the literature by focusing on a broader set of factors that contribute to the issue, and by drawing attention to the interventions that could be used to assist women in achieving equity in the workplace.

Findings: Marginalized women more vulnerable

The researchers discovered that the women’s overall experiences were surprisingly similar. “Women, and particularly marginalized women, often feel more vulnerable to workplace dynamics and more susceptible to unfair practices,” Kohout said.

Three themes emerged and, together, they provide a comprehensive, multi-layered description of what is actually transpiring.

Theme 1: Early employment experiences – difficulties getting jobs in their fields

This was felt more strongly with women who were newer immigrants, who felt disadvantaged in terms of Canadian experience. Their feelings of isolation were often intensified in the workplace, where they felt like their prior work and educational experiences were not being sufficiently recognized.

Newer immigrants felt isolated and as if their prior work experiences were not being recognized
Newer immigrants felt isolated and as if their prior work experiences were not being recognized

Theme 2: Cultural challenges at work – identity issues overlay employment experiences

Some felt that cultural backgrounds, and sometimes issues with language, contributed to additional barriers. These opinions were based either on their personal experiences or observations.

Feelings of marginalization were often intensified at work, arising from greater challenges in the hiring and promotional processes.

Theme 3: Inequities in pay – perceptions of unjust pay and a fear to challenge par systems

The women struggled with the idea that men’s work was given a higher value. Many women felt like they were not given as many opportunities to succeed as their male counterparts.

Isolation and unfairness in the workplace often led to feelings of powerlessness.

This research showed that not only do structural or organizational barriers limit the ability of marginalized women to achieve equity in the workplace, but it also revealed that there is a hidden social element that requires further investigation.

The researchers believe that there’s a hidden social element in the gender pay gap
The researchers believe that there’s a hidden social element in the gender pay gap

Policy-makers could play pivotal role in change

Kohout and Singh acknowledge that governments are increasingly introducing initiatives aimed at maintaining or fostering culturally diverse workforces, but emphasize that it is necessary to address the underlying social, political and economic factors that place women at a disadvantage.

“Our research suggests that the issue must be viewed in a holistic manner if long-term and widespread solutions are to be found,” Kohout explained.

They press for more research. “Our findings reveal greater disparities for some women that should be examined. Our research exposes an underlying social element that must be explored,” Singh said.

Perhaps most importantly, this new research gives marginalized women a voice. “Their stories are important. Learning from their experiences is crucial to add to our understanding and contribute to finding lasting solutions,” Kohout added.

To read the article in Gender in Management, go to the website. To learn more about Singh, visit his faculty profile page. To read more about the gender wage gap in Canada, visit the Canadian Women’s Foundation website. To read the UN Human Rights document on the wage gap in Canada, visit the website.

To learn more about Research and Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch, watch the York Research Impact Story and see the snapshot infographic.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research and Innovation, York University,