It has finally happened.
More Canadian women than men were in paid employment during the first half of 2009, according to Statistics Canada.
But on the eve of annual Labour Day celebrations Monday, this historic milestone holds little promise for women in their longstanding battle for economic equality.
Women still make up about 70 per cent of part-time workers and 60 per cent of minimum wage earners. Forty per cent are employed in precarious jobs that are generally poorly paid with little or no job security or benefits such as pensions. And the average full-time, full-year female worker still earns just 71.4 cents for every dollar earned by a man working similar hours, according to the latest Statistics Canada data from 2007.
"This is hardly cause for celebration," says Laurell Ritchie of the Canadian Auto Workers, who first noticed the phenomenon buried in a StatsCan report released last week.
"This is more a reflection of the economic recession – and losses in the male-dominated manufacturing and resource sectors – than a reflection of any economic gains for women," she says. "It also reflects job growth in some areas of the service sector that tend to be dominated by women."
The employment data, published in the August issue of StatsCan's Perspectives magazine, show women made up an average of 50.6 per cent of Canada's 14 million waged or salaried workers during the first half of 2009. That's an average of 160,000 more women than men.
Women's paid employment hit an all-time high in March at 50.9 per cent, when 233,000 more women were employed, says StatsCan analyst Ted Wannell.
The same trend is occurring in the United States, where women are on the verge of outnumbering men in the labour market with 49.8 per cent in paid employment in June.
Nobody in Canada really noticed in 2007 when women first tip-toed across this employment threshold for three months from February to April, Wannell says. The phenomenon went unreported again for four months in the winter of 2008 when manufacturing job losses coincided with seasonal unemployment in male-dominated sectors such as agriculture, fishing and construction.
But women's dominance in paid employment this year clearly marks a turning point. "This is the first time it has lasted that long and the differences have been so high."
Wannell notes, however, that when the country's 2 million self-employed are added to the employment picture, women made up just 48.1 per cent of those with jobs during this period, since almost twice as many men are self-employed.
Over the past year, employment among men has fallen 1.7 per cent while employment among women has climbed by 0.6 per cent, according to StatsCan. "The industries that tend to attract a disproportionate number of men, such as construction and manufacturing, have taken a bigger hit this time around," says Derek Holt, vice-president, economics, at Scotia Capital.
Job losses have been less severe in sectors that tend to employ more women, such as health care, social assistance and education, he noted.
Scarborough health-care worker and mother Jo-anne Zamora says women play a larger role in the job market because they have to.
When her husband, Jayson, lost his job in an automotive parts plant a year ago, she added a part-time job to her full-time work as a dietary aide at the Rouge Valley Retirement Residence in Markham.
"I had to step it up," says Zamora, 25. "Women are willing to take any job that is offered ... As long as you know there is money coming in and you can feed your family."
Things are looking up now that Jayson has a full-time job in a food processing plant. But to be safe, says Zamora, "I won't quit my part-time job until they lay me off."
Margaret Gates, 55, who works in information technology for Enbridge, is buoyed by the increasing numbers of women in the workforce but realizes employment equity may still be a long way off.
"In my particular field I feel like we've achieved equality, but I can't say that's true across the board," says the Toronto single mother of a university-aged son. "But in this company there are a lot of women employees in all departments and in quite high levels. They're just not running the show."
Toronto child-care worker Cherie Blades, 38, says women have always worked more than men, but "much of it has been at home and unpaid.
"Our work is just not valued," says Blades. She hopes to instil a sense of hope, confidence and equity in the children she works with at Pape Children's House in Riverdale so the situation is different for them.
The new StatsCan data for women's employment raise serious questions about how we treat children and families, says economist Marjorie Cohen, a political science and women's studies professor at Simon Fraser University. "It may be just a blip. But if this is a long-term trend, it indicates a major structural change in the labour force. It means that (child care) is not just a women's issue, but a fundamental issue for our society to deal with."
Women have been looking for economic security since time immemorial, says Armine Yalnizyan, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
"But all we've managed to do is settle for economic independence.
Unfortunately, that independence hasn't come with equal opportunities, equal
wages or equal working conditions to men. Labour Day was set up to celebrate
gains workers have made over time. But there's little in this situation to
With files from Nick Kyonka and Madhavi Acharya-Tom Yew
Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre
Most Ontario Family Court judges simply don't believe any fact that contradicts feminist myths. Ontario Jails tell another story. Tens of thousands of Ontario Men, who become unemployed, who can't pay their child support, are literally thrown in jail, repeatedly for the crime of having lost their job. Ontario has enacted draconian legislation that applies a "Male Sharia Law" where the entire system is designed to remove all legal rights of men and make them criminals for no other crime than losing the jobs or for infuriating their ex wives by remarriage. Check out the incredible research by Peter Roscoe.