|Michelle Chaulk at her workbench in Corner Brook.|
My artists teach me a lot and most recently it was about pay equity. When Michelle Chaulk proposed an exhibition called The Game about the disparity in women and men's salaries, I was cautious. Her proposal stated that when Michelle graduated from NSCAD, 20 years ago and entered the jewelry trade she was laughed at when she asked for the same wage as the men at the jewelry bench– who sometimes had less experience. Naively, I thought it surely must have improved since then but I had to agree with Michelle that during the federal election it was back on the Liberals' agenda.
For The Game Michelle Chaulk created a series of pendants based on playing cards. Each necklace had two rectangles in the fashion of the Catholic scapula that I grew up with. These integrated old pennies: King Edward and Queen Elizabeth. The significant difference is the king was represented with 100 and the queen with 65 to suggest that women were making 65 cents for every dollar that the men were making for work of equal value. Displaying the art jewelry on miniature ladders created by Chaulk extended the metaphor.
Curious to know more about pay equity I decided to dig deeper with Stats Canada's as a reference. Especially during a political campaign, numbers can be misleading and words lend all manner of interpretation, take for example "equal pay for equal work" as opposed to "women should get paid the same as a man for doing the same job". Context can be everything.
However, I was surprised to learn that Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta are the worst two provinces in Canada for pay equity. For most parts of the country, women earn an average of 72 cents– yet in NL more women are employed then men above the national average. This is in part due to the decline of goods manufacturing (including fisheries and lumber) and the rise of the service sector. Also, there are higher numbers of women in low paying jobs and a lower number of women holding leadership positions within traditionally male-dominated fields.
NL is no stranger to pay equity and the issue goes back to the 1980s when premier Brian Peckford committed to pay equity to compensate (1988-1991) underpaid female workers in public sector jobs. By 1991, the provincial government backed off, cancelling pay equity settlements for 20,000 health-care workers–a field of which 80% were women. In 2004, the Supreme Court upheld the decision to ditch payments citing the economic recession of 1991. In 2006, the Danny Williams government voluntarily paid the 24 million that was taken off the table in 1991.
Cathy Bennett is both finance minister and the minister responsible for the status of women. Her speeches are clear and make good sense of complex situations. She pointed to inequity as a result of more women in part-time positions and full day kindergarten would be one solution. Overall, women are currently 50.2% of core civil service–we've made gains in the number of women hired but because they have been in the workforce a shorter period of time they make less than older male counterparts. The RNC now has 28% female officers but only 20% of them make over $100,000 or what is referred to as the Sunshine List.