Young Businesswoman Addressing Boardroom Meeting

The pursuit of gender equality is front and centre in Budget 2018, with a wide variety of measures that aim to improve opportunities for women in the workforce and support equal parenting.

In an initiative that was widely anticipated in the lead-up to Tuesday’s budget, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government introduced a new Employment Insurance (EI) parental sharing benefit that will provide extended EI parental benefits when both parents agree to share parental leave. This incentive is expected to be available starting June 2019.

The proposed “use-it-or-lose-it” benefit would increase the duration of EI parental leave by up to five weeks for parents who share a standard 12-month parental leave, or up to eight weeks for parents who share an extended 18-month leave.

“We need to recognize that some of [the gender wage gap] is due to the fact that child care — and caregiving duties in general — disproportionately fall to women,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau said in his Budget Speech on Tuesday. “With the EI parental sharing benefit, two-parent families who agree to share parental leave could receive an additional five weeks of leave, making it easier for women to return to work sooner, if they so choose.”

The government points out that in Quebec, where similar caregiving benefits are available, 80% of new fathers claimed or intended to claim parental benefits, compared with just 12% in the rest of Canada.

The initiative is expected to cost $1.2 billion over the next five years.

The parental sharing benefit is part of a broader effort by the government to tackle the gender wage gap in the 2018 federal budget.

“On average, women earn just 69¢ for every dollar earned by men on an annual basis, even though about three-quarters of young women have a post-secondary certificate or degree,” Morneau said in his budget speech.

To address this gap, Budget 2018 also proposes the introduction of pay equity legislation that will aim to ensure that women and men in federally regulated sectors receive the same pay for work of equal value.

The legislation, which the government says will be tabled this autumn, would cover federal employers with 10 or more employees, applying to approximately 1.2 million individuals in total. It would include timelines for implementation and compulsory maintenance reviews and would be subject to independent oversight.

The government hopes that this initiative will set an example for all employers, Morneau said in his speech.

“We know that we can’t make this necessary change happen for all Canadian women, overnight,” he said. “What we can do is lead by example. And it is our hope that in doing so, all employers will reflect on the way in which work done by women has been too often undervalued — and move to take action of their own to help close the gender wage gap.”

The 2018 federal budget also addresses the topic of women in leadership. The government points to statistics from Catalyst Canada showing that women hold just 19% of board seats and 15% of executive officer positions on companies included in the S&P/TSX composite index.

The government will support the representation of women in leadership positions and on boards by creating an annual award, in partnership with the private sector, to recognize corporations that are showing leadership in this area.

“When women hold leadership positions, companies see stronger financial performance, more innovation, and more effective decision-making at the board level,” Morneau said in his speech.

The budget also includes a new entrepreneurship strategy for women, in which the government plans to invest $115 million over the next five years toward helping women-owned businesses grow, find new customers and access export opportunities.

The government points to statistics showing that fewer than one in six businesses in Canada are majority-owned by women, and businesses owned by women tend to be smaller than businesses owned by men.

“Women entrepreneurs face unique barriers in accessing capital, supply chains and export programs compared to their male counterparts. Women entrepreneurs may also have a harder time receiving training and finding mentorship,” the budget documents state. “The government believes that with greater support, women-led businesses could enter, compete and win on the world stage, boosting economic growth and creating more good, well-paying jobs here at home.”