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Austerity agenda is detrimental towards women

To date, the Conservative government's austerity agenda has left women facing a triple jeopardy of impacts: declines in their labour force participation, a persisting pay gap, and neglected public services that women typically benefit from.

The combination of these impacts has hit women's economic equality hard. In 1994, Canada held the highest ranking on the UN's Human Development Index (HDI) and was perceived to have the best gender-equality measures worldwide. Two decades later, the once international praise is long forgotten. While Canada now ranks eighth on the HDI, it is our 23rd-place standing on the UN's Gender Inequality Index that gained international attention at the recent Commission on the Status of Women Conference, held in New York.

As of 2014, over 80,000 women left Canada's labour force (LF), bringing their LF participation rate down to 61.6 per cent from 62.2 per cent in 2013. This is Canada's lowest rate of women's LF participation since 2002, and a reversal of decades of gradually growing gender equality through women's participation in the workforce. With a population of 14.7 million women aged 15 and over in Canada last year, this 0.6 percentage point decline in the participation rate meant 88,000 fewer workers.

Importantly, this wasn't the result of an overall decline of employment in the more female-dominated industries. On the contrary, employment levels of women in the most female-dominated industries -- education, health and social services -- all increased, while declining in the more male-dominated industries. This means that despite all the promotion of women in non-traditional occupations, Canada's workforce became even more divided by gender last year.

What's more, pay gaps for women -- especially among Aboriginal and minority groups -- are greater in the private sector than in the public sector.

In fact, Catalyst Canada lately noted that the Canadian gender pay gap is double the global average. Women working full-time earn only 82 per cent of what men earn. And around 70 per cent of part-time employees in Canada are women, often because they lack access to child-care services. Mothers who take parental leave have been shown to face a pay gap of three per cent for every year they do not work, for the remainder of their lives.

In spite of these trends, there's been little progress in reducing wage gaps for women. In fact the gap has recently increased. Of course, there is no simple solution that effectively responds to the full scope of the matter, as gender inequality has pervaded every facet of Canadian society. However, the Conservative government's budgets have done little to address the situation.

Since 2006, the Conservatives cut Status of Women Canada budget by 37 per cent, compelling the closure of 12 of its 16 regional offices. As a result, advocacy groups and women's service providers, such as rape crisis centres, have become ineligible for funding.

Meanwhile, the high rates of violence against Aboriginal women have become a national tragedy, as has the lack of government action to prevent it. Low standards of living have left over 1,200 women missing, yet Harper's government has cut funding from the Sisters in Spirit database project, which once kept track of our "Stolen Sisters."

In the same vein, the planned National Child Care Program was eliminated and related bilateral agreements with the provinces were cancelled. Instead, in the name of giving parents better "choices", a $100-monthly taxable allowance for pre-school children was instituted, an amount that barely covers hiring the occasional babysitter. Is it then surprising that UNICEF ranked Canada last among 25 developed nations on early childhood education and child care?

Exacerbating matters are the funding cuts to Statistics Canada and related organizations, whereby crucial statistics that can be used to develop programs and policies that benefit women will no longer be available. This lack of evidence will make it harder to argue that public interventions are necessary to redress women's social and economic inequality.

Nonetheless, income-splitting was prioritized to "help families." This generous tax break will be lost on 89 per cent of Canadian households, but will cost around $2 billion in lost revenue that could have gone towards, for example, a national child-care program.

Plenty of other government actions or non-actions have been, and will be, detrimental towards women. But with its budget supposedly balanced, isn't it now far overdue for the federal government to be more balanced in its social policies? It should go without saying that women's economic equality is not only crucial for women themselves but also for a stable and prosperous economy. Unfortunately, denial has only rendered the problem worse, and an even more pressing one as Election Day looms.

Ali Hamandi is a Trudeau Foundation Scholar and a PhD Candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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