The gender wage gap still exists—but here’s how CPAs can help drive change

By Lisa Jackson
Dec 5, 2023
Photo credit: Afry Harvy/iStock/Getty Images

Three leading CPAs share their thoughts on the persisting gender wage gap in Canada and how the profession can help narrow it.

Despite strides made in recent years, the gender wage gap is real, with research showing that women working full time and part time are still making less than their male counterparts in Canada. CPAs Jenny Okonkwo, Janine Rogan and Nancy Wilson delve into the current state of the gender wage gap, shedding light on the progress made, the obstacles that remain and how CPAs can drive meaningful change.

CPA Jenny Okonkwo is the founder and former president of Black Female Accountants Network (BFAN), an award-winning national professional network with 1,500-plus members. Its top priority is the career advancement of its members through personal growth, learning opportunities and leadership skills development.

CPA Janine Rogan is the author of The Pink Tax and founder/CEO of The Wealth Building Academy Inc., which aims to educate and empower women to grow their wealth. She was a speaker at CPA Canada’s 2023 Mastering Money Conference.

CPA Nancy Wilson is the founder and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce—the country’s first chamber of commerce that advocates for diverse women-identified and non-binary entrepreneurs, founders and business owners.

Mind the gap

First, the good news: the gender pay gap is shrinking for all groups of women, especially for those with the largest gaps. There are more women in the workforce than ever before, more Canadian women are getting post-secondary degrees, and women-owned businesses are on the rise.

“Despite the crushing effects of the pandemic, 18 per cent of businesses, including small, medium and large businesses, are majority owned by women in Canada,” says Okonkwo.

However, there’s still a long way to go, with women still making 89 cents for every dollar that men make.

“We’ve made progress over the years, but there’s still a good 10 points or so to be made up,” says Wilson. “Of course, those numbers are our averages—the gap is certainly larger for racialized individuals, non-binary, trans and people with disabilities.”

Indeed, racialized women make 67 cents for every dollar men earn, Indigenous women earn 65 cents per dollar and women with disabilities earn 54 cents per dollar. Progress is painfully slow.

“We need to put an intersectional lens on the conversation,” says Okonkwo. “Because the research shows the gap can be more significant for women with intersecting identities.”

What’s behind the gap?

Whether it’s caring for kids or elderly parents, women are still doing more than their share at home—and this hampers career and income growth.

“There’s the ‘motherhood penalty’ or ‘child penalty’—whereby caregivers are paid less or lose out on opportunities,” says Rogan. “Women are often seen as less ambitious in their jobs because they have kids.”

Other factors that can contribute to the “family gap” include long career interruptions, a higher earnings gap for single mothers compared to married mothers and hiring biases. Women are twice as likely to work part-time, often due to childcare responsibilities, which feeds into the gender pay gap. Wilson says women’s underrepresentation in upper management is also a factor.

“When you look at things like year-end bonuses, profit-sharing and so forth, the wage gap is significant,” says Wilson. “When accounting for those types of compensation, women earn about 43 per cent less than men do.”

Discrimination persists, says Rogan, with some managers assuming that a woman is bound to take maternity leave and may be reluctant to hire or promote them as a result. Or women are passed over because of “bad timing.”

“When I worked in the corporate world, I was passed over for a promotion three times because I was close to my maternity leave, on my maternity leave and just back from it,” says Rogan.

Looking at leadership positions, the lack of diverse representation contributes to the wage gap and slower career advancement for women from racialized groups.

“McKinsey research shows that women from underrepresented groups lack sponsors in the workplace,” said Okonkwo. “Sponsorship is absolutely key for career advancement—you need people advocating for you in spaces where you are absent.”

Gender and leadership stereotypes fuel inequality, too. While male leaders are often praised for assertiveness, women leaders may be labeled “bossy” or “aggressive” and even face backlash for being perceived as “unlikeable.” Some employers may penalize people who “act outside of gender norms.” Women who lead are often perceived as “difficult” when challenging norms, and the perception of a “difficult employee” may begin from early on—particularly during the salary negotiation phase.

“Women assertively negotiating a salary upwards does not happen very easily,” says Wilson. “The pushback is extreme and may lead that person to be excluded, and eventually, shown the door.”

Jumping through entrepreneurial hoops

The hurdles extend beyond the workplace, with many women entrepreneurs facing upward battles to build their businesses.

“Access to capital is definitely the biggest challenge,” says Rogan. “Globally, the percentage of women-led startups that gain access to venture capital funding is 2.3 per cent. Women-led businesses are perceived as risky or not taken as seriously.”

Okonkwo points out that the average financing for male-owned businesses is about 150 per cent higher than it is for women, and the challenges are even greater for women with intersecting identities.

“What some women from underrepresented groups may encounter in the workplace may also be experienced in entrepreneurship,” says Okonkwo. “Research by the Women’s Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEK) published in 2023 indicates that Indigenous women encounter barriers accessing financial services due to systemic exclusion. Black women entrepreneurs also struggle with financing, borrowing, systemic racism and more limited networking, mentorship and training opportunities.”

Gender bias can also affect how women entrepreneurs are treated and perceived, potentially leading to less confidence and support from investors and customers.

“As a woman-identified business owner, my abilities were underestimated when closing deals and gaining customers,” says Wilson. “When I engaged with my clients, who were women-identified entrepreneurs, I found out that they were experiencing the exact same thing: ignored emails, lowball offers, emails dripping with disrespect, inability to get appointments.”

How CPAs can help close the gap

As financial stewards and advisors, CPAs can play a pivotal role in championing financial equality within organizations. While pay equity laws exist in some provinces, such as Ontario and Quebec, and there are proactive pay equity obligations on federally regulated employers with 10 or more employees in both the public and private sectors, pay equity legislation across Canada is still lacking. However, Wilson said CPAs can nonetheless raise it as a possible future risk as legislation changes.

“If you see a client not practising pay equity, red flag it as a potential risk for legal liability in the future,” says Wilson. “Counsel clients to move toward pay equity—which is beneficial in terms of attracting good talent, retaining employees and for risk management purposes.”

Pushing for pay transparency can also be a tool to bust through the glass ceiling, Rogan says. By advocating for transparent compensation structures within organizations, CPAs can help ensure that women are paid on par with their male counterparts. (It’s worth noting that B.C. has already passed pay transparency legislation and it was tabled in Ontario recently.)

“Women are often underpaid because they don’t feel like they are able to negotiate an initial job offer,” says Rogan. “Having those pay bands posted on the job description helps ensure that team members are paid equitably.”

Sitting on teams, CPAs can also monitor pay equity and provide regular reports to assess and address disparities, which can be used to promote fair opportunities and inclusive policies.

“If you sit on a board, make sure that the data is included in your annual report,” says Rogan. “As CPAs, leading by example is an important step if we’re going to be seen as leaders in the business world.”

How women can take charge of their financial future

To empower women to take charge of their finances, Okonkwo, Rogan and Wilson offer the following tips:

  • Boost your financial literacy: “CPA Canada hosts the Mastering Money Conference, an annual event which I have personally attended—highly educational and a great learning experience,” says Okonkwo.

     

  • Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate: “Everything is negotiable, not just your base salary. You can negotiate more working from home, a higher bonus, stock-based compensation or more vacation,” says Rogan.

     

  • Do your research: “Before a job interview, know what the average compensation is for the role. Look on Glassdoor or ask someone in the industry with a similar role,” says Rogan.

     

  • Hire a financial pro: “Working with a CPA will give you a better picture of your finances, your choices and future opportunities,” says Wilson. “If you’re a business owner, you need to understand a lot of moving parts of the business, but learning all of the things a CPA knows—that’s a tall order. Your time is better spent on your area of expertise than figuring out the financial side of your business.”

     

  • Get connected: Networking can help you build vital contacts, gain support and access opportunities to advance your career and personal development. “At the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce, members get access to discounts on business-related products and services, as well as a thriving community of like-minded business owners across Canada,” says Wilson. “We give our members speaking opportunities and help them build their business.”

     


Lisa Jackson is a Hamilton-based freelance writer specializing in personal finance and investing.

Originally published by CPA Canada's news site.