Sex and spending: are federal budgets sexist?

One thing that really stands out about the Conservative government’s budgets and spending priorities is just how heavily they have focused spending in male-dominated sectors of the economy, while largely ignoring sectors where women predominate.

The 2015 Federal Budget, like previous budgets, gave priority to increased spending in infrastructure, construction, resource industries and in defence and security. Employment in each one of these sectors is heavily dominated by men, with women making up less than a fifth of their workforces. Sectors of the economy where women form a larger share of the workforce—health care, education, and social assistance—are almost completely ignored, as they have been for many years.

Women share emloyment

Even federal support for post-secondary education their budgets have been heavily geared towards male-dominated areas of study such as engineering and business, increased private sector involvement, and on capital spending in universities. Federal transfers for health care—the biggest employer of women—will be constrained in coming years, reducing federal support for health care by $36 billion over ten years.

The only specific measures aimed at women in the 2015 federal budget are very minor measures to help women entrepreneurs and to increase women on corporate boards. These aren’t exactly areas that will help the vast majority of working women.

The Conservative government’s heavy focus on the private sector to the detriment of the public sector also does little to help women.  Not only are women a smaller share of private sector employment, but pay gaps for women—together with Aboriginal Canadians and racialized workers—are much larger in the private sector than in the public sector.

Plenty of other Conservative government actions or non-actions have been detrimental towards women: cancellation and lack of support for a national childcare plan, income splitting, corporate trade deals, emphasis on tax cuts that provide greater benefits to men, cuts to Employment Insurance, lack of support for higher minimum wages, public pensions, affordable housing, long-term care, social spending or measures to reduce violence against women, weakening of pay equity and employment equity rules, and deep cuts or elimination of funding to agencies supporting women and equality rights.

Many of these have been well-documented elsewhere.   Experts including Kathleen Lahey, Armine Yalnizyan, Marjorie Griffin Cohen and Kate McInturff have also found a significant gender bias in their analysis of previous budgets and of the federal government’s economic stimulus measures.

So what’s new about the latest budget?

Greater emphasis on more male-dominated sectors may have been rationalized previously on the basis that men suffered much greater loss of jobs during the recession, or “He-cession” as some called it.  But the relative unemployment rates of men and women are now similar to their historical averages, job growth for men has been twice the pace of women’s job growth in the past year, and women dropped out of the labour force in record numbers last year.

The International Monetary Fund and G20 group of nations have emphasized that gender equality needs to be a priority for economic development, and Pope Francis has called the gender pay gap “a pure scandal”.

With its budget supposedly balanced, isn’t it now far overdue for the federal government to be more balanced in its social, economic and spending policies?

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