Why is it so hard to close the gender wage gap?

The wage gap is pretty easy to understand. I do a job. You do a job. I get paid more. You get paid less. Unfair. Especially if you and I have the same training, work the same hours, and perform the same kind of tasks. And yet, the gender wage gap persists, right here in Canada, even when education, occupation, experience, and hours of work are considered. The gap is even bigger for Indigenous women, racialized women, immigrant women, and women with disabilities.

Still skeptical? Consider McMaster University. They looked at men and women doing exactly the same job (university professor), at the same place, adjusted for years of work, number of publications, tenure, and rank and they still found that women were paid less than men. More than $3,000 a year less.

So the wage gap is a real thing. And it’s pretty easy to understand that it’s not fair. So why is this problem so hard to fix?

Maybe science has the answer.

A few years ago, a group of scientists at Emory University set up an experiment with Capuchin monkeys. Two monkeys, let’s call them Fred and Ginger, were placed side by side, each clearly visible to the other. Fred and Ginger were asked to perform a simple task: take a small pebble from the experimenter and return it to her. Every time the monkeys performed the task they were given a piece of food.

Here’s the twist. When Fred returns the pebble, he gets a grape (top monkey food). When Ginger returns the pebble, she gets a cucumber (meh monkey food).

So what happens?

First Ginger checks her pebble. Nope, nothing different about her pebble. She tries again. Same result. Cucumber. Then Ginger looks at Fred. Nothing different about Fred. Again she tries with the pebble. Same result.

Then Ginger gets mad. Really mad. She throws the cucumber.

Screw your cucumber, I want my grape, her face seems to say.

But look again. Consider Fred. Fred remains unperturbed during the duration of the experiment, unbothered by Ginger’s unfair treatment. Does Fred not care about Ginger? Where is Fred’s sense of social justice? Why does Fred not offer to share his grape?

Now put yourself in his place. He did his task. He got the grape. Clearly he is a wiz with the pebble. Who knows what Ginger is up to? Don’t tell Fred he doesn’t deserve his grape or that the grape was merely the result of luck on his part. No one wants to hear that.

Consider that 74% of members of parliament have lived a lifetime of getting grapes. Not to mention 98% of the top 100 CEOs in Canada. Add in three-quarters of all senior managers in the country.

This may go some way towards explaining why it is so very difficult to convince those with the power to do so to close the wage gap.

Not to mention that fact that our culture is full of stories about the exceptional individual whose unique skills and hard work result in their success. Like a warm bath drawn by our mothers, our society surrounds us with the soothing message: “You are special. You are the best. You deserve it.”

I have met workers and employers who are concerned with the economic cost of closing the wage gap, and reassured them that the considerable economic benefits outweigh them – benefits like more productive employees, better employee retention, and more qualified candidates seeking jobs with their company. The benefits to our economy as a whole are even greater: women making higher wages buy more goods and services, pay more taxes, and invest more in their families and communities. For example, if the women who worked full-time last year in Canada earned the same hourly wage that their full-time male counterparts earned, they would have taken home an additional $42 billion.1 In a slow growing economy that is not nothing.

So why don’t we do it? Why don’t we do what McMaster University did – acknowledge the gap and pay up?

Perhaps because the greatest cost of acknowledging the wage gap may be to the beneficiary’s ego.

So, take a moment Fred. Give your mother a call. Let her tell you that you deserve everything. That you are the best. And hang up.

It’s time to share the grapes.


Kate McInturff is a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. You can follow Kate on Twitter @katemcinturff. This post also appears on the Canadian Women’s Foundation blog.

[1] Labour Force Survey, Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

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