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You support pay equity? Tell me how much you make

The Ottawa Citizen by Romina Raeisi 19 April 2018

One topic we never discuss with each other is our salaries. A colleague can ask if you go to church, but not how much you make. That’s a problem because we can’t know how much we should fairly be paid if we never talk about it.

On April 1, Ontario got new legal rules requiring Equal Pay for Equal Work. The new rules require employers to pay the same rates to all employees, including part-time and casual workers, when they complete substantially the same work, with exceptions for factors such as seniority.

Unfortunately, the new rules have a major flaw. It is up to employees to point out when they are being paid unfairly. But how can they know that?

The government has publicly available, fixed-pay structures that indicate how much employees at each level make. A worker can see what level a colleague doing the same work is in, then look up the salary for that position. Unfortunately, in the private sector, unless there is a collective agreement, organizations rarely make this information available.

The lack of transparency in rates of pay, combined with the fact that it is socially unacceptable to talk about our income, means that individuals doing the same work can’t know if they are being paid different rates. This makes the new rules ineffective and allows the unequal pay rates which disadvantage historically discriminated groups (women, minorities, people with disabilities, etc.) to continue.

According to Statistics Canada, women earn 87 cents on average for every dollar earned by men. Even after controlling for industry, occupation, education, age, job tenure, province of residence, marital status and union status, there is still an eight-per-cent difference. Comparing the incomes of people with full-time, full-year jobs, men of colour make 81 cents, while women of colour make only 62 cents for every dollar white men make.

Some differences may be due to overt discrimination, but much of it stems from less obvious factors such as differences in how people negotiate salaries. As my dad always says, no one will give you anything if you don’t ask.

Research shows that men negotiate wage increases more often and more aggressively than women. The Harvard Business Review published a study on the starting salaries of recent MBA grads showing that, on average, men received 7.6 per cent more than women, due largely to the fact that men were eight times more likely to negotiate the first offer they received.

Transparent, fixed-pay rates, particularly when combined with the new Equal Pay for Equal Work law, would solve many of these issues.

Of course, this does not mean wages should be inflexible. Our economy works best when we reward hard work and talent. However, employers can take these factors into account by setting a fixed-pay range for each type of position, combined with a list of criteria that will be considered when negotiating individual contracts.

Let me give you an example. Last year, I got a job through the Federal Student Work Experience Program (FSWEP). FSWEP offers fixed rates of pay according to the level of education, from high school to PhD. While the rates are fixed, managers have flexibility in deciding which rate applies, based on years of study, previous experience, previous studies, shortage of students, and enrolment in specialized programs such as law, education and medicine.

The manager initially offered me $16.49/hr. As a second-year law student at the time, I had already completed five years of university studies and had previous work experience. The manager told me they had trouble finding a qualified student. Using the FSWEP pay structure, I found I met the criteria for a rate of $22.04: a 25 per cent jump I wouldn’t have dared ask for otherwise.

Fact is, without this data available, I’d have turned down the job and the manager would have had to hire someone less qualified who might not have been able to do the job. That is the difference fixed, transparent pay rates can make.

Equal Pay for Equal Work is a great initiative. To succeed, it needs us to be willing to tell our colleagues how much we make and for our managers to post rates publicly, either voluntarily or, if necessary, through new legislation.

Romina Raeisi is a third-year French Common Law student at the University of Ottawa.