Though women have made great strides in the workplace, there’s still work to be done and progress to be made. 

It's important to remember and honour groundbreaking women and their journey through gender inequality in the workplace and recognize we still have a long way to go.

Working women have come a long way from being seen as “better than two men in many cases and not half the expense” as they were in the Labrador fishing industry

In fact, for at least the earlier part of the history of women's rights at work, women’s labour was considered cheap and expendable.

Is it any wonder that old notions about ‘women’s work’ still operate in many circles as an innate bias and remain firmly embedded in our work DNA?

history of women in the workplace
history of women in the workplace

early history: “women’s work” is in the domestic realm

Of the top ten occupations for women listed by the Department of Labour in the 19th and early 20th century, almost half of the paid work available to women was in domestic services, logical (for the times) because of their work in the home.

It was hard and dirty work with little time off in poor conditions and worse treatment; women often lived in the attics or basements of their employers.

Understandably, women in the workplace found the rising availability of new jobs in factories, shops, and offices more attractive, even though they earned less than half the pay of men in similar roles.

Job movement into professions like nursing and teaching was an extension of female domestic caregiving service, even though the work was still considered low status, and women were forced to give up their careers in those fields once they married to maintain the social status quo of the breadwinning man and housekeeping woman.

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the shift to industrial work in the 1800s

Towards the end of the 1800s, the textile and clothing industries were the second largest employers of women in the workplace who, again, faced long hours, meagre pay, and terrible working conditions.

When they were able to organize, women asserted themselves, as they did in the first recorded strike for a 55-hour workweek at Toronto Carpet Factory in 1902.

With their numbers increasing, working women drove strikes and actions, forcing city councils across Canada to develop legislation to address gender inequality in the workplace with fairer treatment and compensation.

In fact, Workmen’s Compensation, while it referred only to ‘workmen’, came about as a result of the dangerous work and subsequent job actions of female telephone operators.”

WWI alters the way women workers are viewed

Many consider the turning point in the history of women’s rights at work to be the First World War when women entered the workforce to replace enlisted men.

This wasn’t the same wave of employment experienced in WW2.Still, it was enough to alter the working dynamic going forward, even if women were encouraged — and in some cases legislated — to return to their place in the kitchen at the end of the war.

The times were definitely changing in the first half of the 20th century with the suffragette movement seeking the vote for women and the Great Depression of the 1930s, triggered by the stock market crash of 1929. That same year, Canadian women were finally recognized as ‘persons’ under the law.

The impending war in Europe made great demands on the workforce as multitude of men enlisted, and the need for products to support the war effort increased.

This time, when the war ended, many women declined the invitation to step back into the home. They stayed employed, even if their presence triggered significant cultural and social change and forced governments and unions to rethink their mandates.

slow strides made from 1950s to present

The 1950s saw rapid economic expansion and increased production and availability of goods, health and education services.

New products and services and the need to advertise and deliver them created new opportunities for women in the workplace. The desire to contribute to their families’ standard of living sent many women into the workforce.

Their numbers continue to increase; as of 2022, Statistics Canada estimated that over 47.5% of the workforce comprised women.

Women have unquestionably made remarkable strides in the workplace. Nevertheless, as we celebrate these hard-earned achievements, it's equally essential to recognize the significant hurdles that still lie ahead in achieving genuine gender equality. 

This journey through the landscape of workplace gender inequality has been characterized by substantial progress but remains fraught with persistent challenges.

today’s wage disparity between men and women

One of the most troubling issues plaguing us is the wage gap between men and women in similar positions. It's disheartening to see that, despite women demonstrating equal competence and commitment, they earn less than their male colleagues for doing the same job. 

This persistent wage gap represents a significant roadblock on women's journey toward achieving true gender equality.

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present legislation addressing gender inequality

Efforts to combat gender inequality have not been in vain. Legislative developments have played a crucial role in addressing gender disparities. 

Canada's Employment Equity Act, introduced in 1986, aimed to establish a foundation for equal access to employment opportunities, amending the disadvantageous conditions women, along with Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, and members of visible minorities, faced in the workplace.

Plus, the recent implementation of the Pay Transparency Act in 2023 places new requirements on employers to confront systemic discrimination in the workplace. 

This legislation represents a significant step forward in addressing gender-based wage disparities and promoting workplace equality.

persisting challenges for women in the workplace

Some of the major challenges in the workplace that women experience are harassment, the gender pay gap, and the limited representation of women in leadership roles continue to this day. 

The prevalence of workplace harassment underscores the necessity for a broader cultural shift that supports women's professional development and fosters equitable workplaces.

A cultural change is important to support women's professional development. Shifting societal perceptions of gender roles and promoting diverse, inclusive, and equitable work environments are essential to this change.

the changing narratives in male-dominated fields

Women are breaking barriers in traditionally male-dominated fields like STEM and finance. This shift signifies a changing narrative where women are no longer confined to certain roles. 

However, work must still be done to achieve equal representation in these areas.

Despite advancements, women continue to bear the lion's share of domestic responsibilities, even when sharing some responsibilities with their partners. 

This imbalance can impact their professional development and career trajectories, highlighting the need for cultural change and a reevaluation of societal expectations regarding gender roles.

women's representation in the workplace—statistics

Despite significant advancements, the underrepresentation of women in STEM careers remains a concern. 

Women comprise less than 25% of the workforce in these fields. Specifically, women constitute only 23% of the workforce in science and technology. Furthermore, regarding skilled trades in Canada, women account for just a mere 5%

These statistics underscore the need for ongoing efforts to promote gender equality and diversity in traditionally male-dominated industries.

While we celebrate the progress made in women's workplace rights, we must also recognize that gender inequality persists. 

Challenges such as the wage gap, limited leadership roles, and domestic responsibilities continue to hinder women's advancement. Legislation and cultural change are pivotal in promoting gender equality in the workplace and breaking down the remaining barriers that persist.

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