Labour Barriers in Canada: Research Paper by YPSWA

by: Volodymyr Paslavskyi, YPSWA President

In Canada, Employment Equity (EE) was designed to overcome and remedy barriers that certain groups systematically face in the Canadian labour market. These groups usually are Aboriginals, women, minorities and disabled persons. Given that each group is unique with its own history and needs, it is hard to design an all-inclusive EE approach for all of them at the same. Therefore, EE is a complex set of policies that may include variety of things, like child care, abolition of unreasonable employment requirements, numerical targets and so on (Charlton, 1994 & Abu-Laban, 2002). Issues related to EE are inherently related to social justice and social rights (Abu-Laban, 2002). It is argued that if justice is to be served, employment disparities must be remedied through the introduction of EE (Charlton, 1994). But as research shows, EE produced meager results, is highly misunderstood by the public and is still unable to overcome labour phenomena of “glass ceiling” and “sticky floor”.

“Glass ceiling” and “sticky floor” are well known labour barriers that involve promotions and usually affect women and minorities. These concepts affect how women or minorities advance on their career paths. If “glass ceiling” affects high ranking women or members of visible minorities and their ability to breakthrough an invisible divide that separates CEO, executive positions and members of the board from the rest of employees, then, “sticky floor” affects low ranking staff and their ability to springboard their careers from the lowest position in a company to the middle management (Yap, 2009; Bjerk, 2008; Bery, 2010). These concepts suggest inequality because they do not seem to affect Canadian born white males. In fact, studies after studies show that white males are faster promoted than women, minorities and Aboriginals, even though they have the same qualifications (Yap, 2009). Therefore, pundits continue to ponder, how and what can breach the effects of “glass ceiling” and “sticky floor” on women and minorities?

EE policies are often misunderstood because “equity implies fairness”, which symbolizes different meanings to different people (Stilwell, 2004: 39). EE policies are also not very trusted by the public or are stigmatized by the same people, because EE may mask legitimate differences in employment that are not related to discrimination, but to education, culture and language (Charlton, 1994) or suggest that certain employees reached their success due to some special bureaucratic accommodations (Barr, 1996). As a result, EE is deemed by some as reverse discrimination, who argue that “EE …officially disadvantages every member of the amorphous majority” (Roberts, 1994, 407). Furthermore, for EE critics, these policies are “in tension with the core idea of equality of opportunity, which forbids both privileges and barriers to opportunities based on sex” (Jacobs, 2004: 208) or on other characteristics.

More recently, EE had been replaced with “Diversity Model” that makes a shift from a goal of social justice to profit maximization rationale. This new model does not rely on legislations or government regulations, rather it relies on voluntary compliance with an EE ideal. Profit maximizing rationale, however, may be more effective in breaching “glass ceiling” and “sticky floor,” because in its core, it emphasizes “profit-loss responsibility,” “profit-loss skills,” which had been identified as paramount indicators of making to the top (Barr, 1996; Bjerk, 2008; Berry, 2010). What this means is that “a significant problem contributing to the difficulties facing women [and minorities] to reach the top seems to be the fact that few senior women [or members of minorities] are in the so called “line” positions that involve profit-and-loss or revenue generating[/profit maximizing] responsibilities that are critical for advancement to the highest levels… In Canada, men hold about 89% of line jobs” (Berry, 2010: 6). Moreover, “a recent study by Catalyst found that male CEOs believe overwhelmingly (82%) that the “lack of general management, line experience and [profit-loss responsibility] prevents women [and minorities] from advancing to corporate leadership. As one man responded, “it is not that women [or minorities] haven’t been in the pipeline long enough; it’s what they have done while they are in the pipeline.”” (Barr, 1996: 15).

“Glass ceiling” term came into the literature in the 1980s and remained part of the established vocabulary since then (Burke, 2005). As its name suggests, it implies “an invincible and impermeable barrier that limits career advancement of women” (Burke, 2005: 165). But others contend that it includes minorities and Aboriginals. In fact, they argue that “”glass ceiling” implies that promotions into top management are particularly prone to gender and race bias. Top management positions entail the highest level of authority, responsibility, and risk for the firm” (Yap, 2009: 597), therefore, it is believed that sameness of the top managers contributes to greater cohesiveness, performance and predictability to what type of decisions will be made (Kanter, 1977). Consequently, it may partially explain why white men are more than likely to be promoted.

As “glass ceiling” entered the vocabulary, it was soon followed by another term of similar meaning, “sticky floor” (Burke, 2005). Burke describes this term as “the difficulties talented women experience in advancing in their careers in medium and large organizations” (Burke, 2005: 165). But Berry’s definition is more precise and refers to “forces that keep women stuck at the bottom at the bottom of the economic pyramid” (Berry, 2010: 1). These forces could be consequences of “statistical discrimination if employers believe a group of workers are at risk of quitting… [or] if rents are larger at the bottom of the wage distribution than at the top… [or] if anti-discrimination policy is most effective at the top of the wage distribution e.g. if policy primarily targets minorities representations in management jobs” (Pendakur, 2009: 2-3). To put it differently, the bottom of the economic pyramid is low paying service jobs such as waitressing, clerical work in the office or retail store. Even if the minimum wage was increased at these places of employment, it still would not help women caught in them to move out of the ghetto jobs (Rogers, 1997). Although “sticky floor” is primarily examined from the men-women perspective (Albrecht, 2003), Pendakur and Shin conclude that minorities do not escape the depressing effects of the “sticky floor” (Shin, 2008; Pendakur, 2009).

An interesting point to note that both “glass ceiling” and “sticky floor” are defined by outcomes rather than by a metaphysical definition of “what it is?” The reason behind it probably stems from the fact that HR specialists still do not really know what causes these barriers to be so persistent, what triggers them in the first place and so on, but we do know how they look after we observe statistics. Another point to keep in mind that these two concepts are differentiated on the hierarchy of the employment barriers. The former affects high end positions whereas the latter affects low end jobs. Some scholars found that these two barriers do not sufficiently explain why major positions within a company are not as diverse as the people in this country. For that reason, they have introduced other definitions that attempt to plug holes left by the first two definitions. They are “glass door” and “mid-level bottleneck” or “pipeline.” The latter term is more common than “glass door” and is worthwhile describing it in this paper.

“Mid-level bottleneck” refers to a stage in-between “sticky floor” and “glass ceiling” and represents a critical leap into the management. This stage can potentially make or break a person and launch him/her on the path to the top. “Individuals who move quickly up the middle management ranks are the most likely to eventually attain senior management positions” (Yap, 2009: 596). These positions require college or university degrees and introduce employees to authority and responsibility for the firm’s financial success (Yap, 2009). Regardless of the education factor, this stage still is dominated by young white men, who are promoted because they are seen by the management as more capable and trustworthy than women and minorities (Yap, 2009). As a result, they are asked to supervise women and minorities at this critical stage. Important to note that white men not only supervise women and minorities, but also evaluate their performance, which determines their chance of further promotion (Yap, 2009).

According to St. Mark from Pritney Bowes, it is important for a woman to leap into management position as early as she can. The longer she waits, the harder it gets to make a move later on (Barr, 1996). She, for example, waited for this opportunity to leap into the line-management position for 22 years, and she was not just waiting for it, she worked hard to deserver it (Barr, 1996). Obviously, such commitment is not for everybody. Therefore, many women are reconsidering their career options and refuse to go into MBA programs, which, in turn, cut the pool of qualified females even further. “A slow progress made by talented, educated, ambitious women is now having some negative effects on women’s views of management and the professions as a career. Fewer women are entering MBA programs, thus reducing the pipeline for career advancement… In addition, more women in mid-career are leaving their corporate jobs, opting for a career in small business or full-time investment in family” (Burke, 2005: 166). In corollary, this section shows what important role “mid-level bottleneck” plays in breaching two known barriers of “glass ceiling” and “sticky floor.” But of course, “mid-level bottleneck” is also a barrier that needs to be conquered.

Old Employment Equity Model
In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was believed that such barriers could be conquered through government intervention. Such interventionist views were based on post-war assumptions: the state had important role to play in supporting social equality of groups and the state should intervene in the labour market to correct inequalities (Abu-Laban, 2002). But these assumptions and interventionist legislations did not produce significant results. Thus, a 1993 survey of Fortune 1000 found that 91% of executives are men (Barr, 1996). But in just two years this number increased. “In 1995, 95% of senior level managers in the top Fortune 1000 industrial and 500 service companies in the US were male, 97% were also white. [Similar numbers could be also observed] in the UK, [where] females make up just 8.3% of the senior judiciary, 9.7% of top business leaders, and 9.1% of newspaper editors” (Bjerk, 2008: 961). Based on these numbers, it is not easy to conclude that the overall numbers and ranks of women in executive positions have actually declined (Baue, 2002). This data confirms that EE produced meager results.

Although, similar data for the Canadian companies could not be located, events in the 1990s in Ontario suggest that EE measures were also not successful. In 1991, EE Act was legislated by the NDP government, but by 1995, the subsequent Conservative government repelled this legislation by arguing that if EE is really good for business, it will be picked up voluntarily by companies because it helps them to earn new earnings (Abu-Laban, 2002). In other words, in the second part of the 1990s, Neo-liberal forces shifted EE argument from the social justice goal to the economic argument and competitiveness.

With this realignment, group members were disaggregated, individualized, and this led to ignoring of unequal power relations among groups by the government. As justification for the new alignment, traditionally disadvantaged groups were blamed for too long seeking special treatment, for not having the right pre-market skills such as education, and for not taking responsibility for their own actions, etc (Abu-Laban, 2002). Consequently, “Diversity Model” replaced old EE measures. Diversity Model uses diversity as a “competitive edge” (Abu-Laban, 2002: 150) to compete and move forward.

New “Employment Equity Model”
Essentially, “diversity model” promises to overcome and remedy “glass ceiling” and “sticky floor” not through social and structural means, but through individual means that accrue greater individual benefits. It says that a company needs diversity in the top management because in the age of globalization, diversity opens doors to diverse and new markets (Abu-Laban, 2002, Shin, 2007 & Ernst, 2011). According to RBC Financial Group, inability of women and minorities to overcome the labour barriers costs economy $174 billion annually in personal income losses (Shin, 2007). In inference, it suggests that $174 billion could be invested in the economy every year if women and minorities did not face barriers.

But the truth of the matter is, even if diversity did contribute to the leveling of playing fields for many competitors, barriers to productive labour integration lag behind economic diversity that lead to the economic integration (Ernst, 2011). Anne McLellan, former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada admitted recently that not much progress was made in the last decade by women in the corporate Canada (Shin, 2007). As it turns out, Canada is far away from the necessary labour integration (Shin, 2007 & Shin, 2008).

Logically, “diversity model” should contribute to breaching of “glass ceiling” and “sticky floor” barriers because it combines individualism, “profit-loss responsibility” and profit-maximization. But for some reason these two barriers persist. Why? It is possible that the labour barriers simply could lag behind other developments that contribute to the overall revenue of a company. It is also possible that discrimination is still languishing out there. According to UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallstrom, these concepts of inequality

“result from social constructs built upon numerous stereotypes present in family, education, culture, and media, which are reflected in political institutions and assemblies [and in labour force]. In truth, however… it is not glass ceilings or sticky floors which prevent women from reaching the top… [but because] there is a thick layer of men” (Wallstrom, 2010: 30).”

She elaborates on this point and concludes that the number one reason why women do not get promoted is not due to shortage of capable women, but because men prefer to choose men (Wallstrom, 2010: 31). In fact, many authors on this topic have noted that discrimination or bias against women and minorities is still strong in the labour market (Pardakur, 2009; Immen, 2010: B13; Barr, 1996).

Breaching Barriers
Almost a decade after the “diversity model” had been introduced, a 2008 Canadian study had found that white women are 11% less likely than white men to be promoted out of “sticky floor” conditions. Subsequently, minority females are 29% less likely than white males to be promoted, and the same study could not produce statistically significant results for minority males at this stage (Yap, 2009). At “mid-level bottleneck” stage, white females were only 6% less likely to be promoted than white males, whereas minority females were 17% less likely to be promoted than white male counterparts (Yap, 2009). But conditions for minority men do not improve at this stage. At this stage, they were found to be 10% less likely to be promoted than white males (Yap, 2009). At the “glass ceiling” stage, however, white females were 2.5% more likely to be promoted than white males. At the last stage, white females have advantage over their white counterparts. Although these results were not statistically significant, they nevertheless suggest that the “diversity model” did indeed contribute to breaching of at least one of the labour barriers. Minority males were 6% less likely to be promote than white females and minority females were 3% less likely to be promoted (Yap, 2009).

In conclusion, the study found that “sticky floor” and “mid-level bottleneck” barriers were more detrimental to women and minority women than “glass ceiling” (Yap, 2009). Results, however, remain puzzling when it comes to minority men, who at the first stages of barriers face little if any obstacles, but at the highest executive positions stumble and are worst of all. A possible explanation could be that

when there is a hierarchy of jobs within a firm, a firm discrimination against one group with respect to hiring into a lower level job may switch to discriminating against the other group when it comes to promoting to a higher level job. …if the firm requires a higher standard a higher standard for one group at the initial hiring stage, it may then be able to be more lenient at he promotion stage for this group since it is more confident in the ability of workers’ from this group once hired (Bjerk, 2008: 964).

Another possible explanation could be that at the bottleneck stage, women have better results than their male counterparts, and this acquired experience promotes them faster into the upper management (Bjerk, 2008).

Ernst and Chrobot-Mason (2011) identified six techniques that could break the labour barriers. They are: buffering, reflecting, connecting, mobilizing, weaving and transforming. For the purposes of this paper, it is worthwhile to say that these techniques are meant to strengthen less dominant groups within a firm, then connect them with a dominant group and lastly transform the whole firm as one unit.

In this paper, two known labour barriers were examined. But it soon became apparent that they leave many things unexplained. Therefore, a third in-between labour barrier (bottleneck) was added to the analyses. As a result, it was identified that the “sticky floor” and “mid-level bottleneck” barriers are more detrimental to women and minorities than the “glass ceiling” barrier.

The research also discovered that the latter barrier had been breached more recently, which was not the case in the golden age of EE and Keynesian policies. It did not happen then because businesses were intransigent to the government’s regulations. On the contrary, this barrier was broken when these regulations were loosened and economic rationale and “diversity model” took over EE discourse. The research, however, also identified that discrimination in the workforce is still strong, which suggests that results could be even more promising if this evil was eradicated. At the end, greater integration of women and minorities in the labour force suggests more benefits for all.


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