More women work in Canada than the U.S. Here’s why

An automotive worker assembles cars at a Volkswagen factory in 2011 in Wolfsburg, Germany.
An automotive worker assembles cars at a Volkswagen factory in 2011 in Wolfsburg, Germany. GETTY IMAGE

The percentage of Canadian women in the work force has risen steadily over an 18-year period, a study published by Statistics Canada today shows. The same can’t be said for women in the United States.

The rates were roughly equal until about 2000, when the U.S. participation rate started to fall.

Canada’s rate is more in line with other industrialized countries, like Japan, Germany and Britain, where women’s labour force participation is also rising.

Why is the U.S. an outlier? The most obvious answer is some level of paid, legally protected time for child care in most advanced countries, which allows women to take time off after birth while also keeping a stake in the work force.

“We’ve set up the system so that it’s easier with women with very young children to move in and out of the labour market more flexibly than in the United States,” says Armine Yalnizyan, an economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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Yalnizyan also points to more affordable higher education in Canada.

“Nobody does extreme like the United States,” she says. “We have done better – it’s not like we’re riding the fairy home – but we have done better in permitting women greater economic independence through paid work.”

READ MORE: New research raises questions about Liberal plans to change parental leave

The difference was most pronounced for women with, at most, a high school education – 72 per cent of less-educated women are in the work force in Canada, compared to 64 per cent in the United States.

In Canada, a combination of maternity and parental leave will cover a year of Employment Insurance benefits, while the U.S. allows for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

A 2012 U.S. study showed that almost a quarter of U.S. women who give birth are back at work less than two weeks later.

If Canadian women had U.S. labour participation rates, about 470,000 fewer would be in the work force.

In 2001, combined maternity and parental leave benefits were doubled to a year. Maternity leave applies only to the mother, while parental leave can be divided between parents.

WATCH: Only a fraction of fathers in Alberta choose to take parental leave, even if they’re eligible for it. Laurel Gregory reports on why so few are using it, and what the federal government is proposing to change that.

Family Matters: Fathers and parental leave
Family Matters: Fathers and parental leave

In a 2013 paper, Cornell University professors linked U.S. women’s low workforce participation, compared to other countries, with more family-friendly policies elsewhere.

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Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn called the fall in American women in the workforce “a stunning reversal.”

“Unlike the United States, most other economically advanced nations have enacted an array of policies designed to facilitate women’s
participation in the labor force, and such policies have on average expanded over the last 20 years relative to the United States,” they wrote.