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What’s keeping so many Alberta women out of the workforce?

Edmonton Journal by Rhonda Breitkreuz, 10 June 2016

Albertans like to think of ourselves as front-runners, but when it comes to the employment of women, we are lagging behind.

According to new data from Statistics Canada, we have the lowest proportion of dual-earner couples among all the provinces. In Alberta, 64 per cent of couples with kids are dual earner compared to the national average of 69 per cent. In short, we have more stay-at-home moms than other parts of the country.

Why is this? Does it show, once and for all, that Alberta is more conservative?

Not necessarily. It would be more accurate to say that it’s the outcome of the hard choices that women make when trying to hold a job and ensure their kids are flourishing in a context of a gender pay gap and abysmal child care options.

Alberta has the youngest population of any province. Consequently, Alberta has a disproportionate number of families with young kids. Mothers of preschool children have a lower employment rate than mothers of school-aged kids, which explains some of the discrepancy between Alberta and the rest of Canada.

However the story is more complex than the age of Alberta’s children.

In 2014, the median family income in Alberta was $97,000, the highest of any province. Much of that income came from men’s wages in our resource-based economy. Many jobs in this sector require long shifts, and many of these employees work away from home for weeks at a time.

One mother I spoke to about this issue summed up this phenomenon by describing herself as a “married single parent with a big pay cheque.”

This “married single mom” status is common among women whose spouses work in the oilpatch. These women are responsible for caring for kids, getting them to school, or piano, or soccer, volunteering for little league and getting kids to the dentist, all on their own. With little to no additional support for unpaid care and household responsibilities, many see no other option than to leave the workforce.

Alberta also has the largest wage gap between men and women. Where women’s earnings in Canada overall are 72 per cent of men’s, in Edmonton, they are only 60 per cent. Working for pay looks a little different for women compared to men. Add our appalling shortage of regulated child care spaces — only one in three preschool-aged kids in Alberta has access to regulated child care — to the mix, and the choices regarding mothers’ employment start to look grim.

High child care costs, limited child care options, dads’ high oilpatch wages, and women’s lower salaries — is it any wonder some women bow out of the workforce for a few years to manage the family circus?

Of course, all of this information is so 2015. We are currently in the bust phase of the economic boom and bust roller-coaster, with thousands of layoffs in the oil and gas sector, and many families struggling to make ends meet. By next year, we will be analyzing the impact of the economic downturn on families and we may see that women’s labour force participation in Alberta has increased quite a bit.

However, let’s not forget the broader context in which families live, whether boom or bust.

As long as we continue to raise kids with limited child care options and pay inequality between women and men, we are going to see families struggle and women’s employment stall. It’s time for governments at all levels to step up and address gendered wage disparities and offer child care that families can trust.

Is there a future in which gender does not determine destiny? For the sake of my tween daughter, I certainly hope so.

Rhonda Breitkreuz is an associate professor in the University of Alberta’s department of human ecology. She does research and teaching on the impacts of social policy on families.