The Status of Gender Equality in Canada: Reflecting on the 25th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action

(Disponible en français : La situation de la progression de l’égalité des genres au Canada : le 25e anniversaire de la Déclaration et Programme d’action de Beijing)

September 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (Declaration), an “agenda for women’s empowerment [aimed] … at removing all the obstacles to women’s active participation in all spheres of public and private life through a full and equal share in economic, social, cultural and political decision-making.”

The ongoing efforts towards achieving gender equality span countries and decades. The United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal 5: Achieve Gender Equality and Empower all Women and Girls affirms that gender equality has not been achieved, globally or in Canada.

This HillNote provides an overview of the Declaration and provides information on the state of gender equality in Canada as well as on the role parliaments can play in fostering greater gender equality.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action

Adopted in 1995 by 189 states at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, the Declaration follows the adoption and implementation of various UN instruments that seek to advance women’s rights; for example, the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which is a legally binding international bill of rights for women and the 1985 Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women.

Governments that adopted the Declaration committed to “ensuring that a gender perspective is reflected in all our policies and programmes.” Under the Declaration, critical areas of concern are identified, and relate to the following themes:

  • violence against women;
  • the effects of armed or other kinds of conflict on women;
  • the lack of respect for and protection of the human rights of women, including for the rights of the girl child;
  • unequal access to education and training as well as health care and related services;
  • the burden of poverty on women and inequality in economic structures and policies, and access to resources;
  • insufficient mechanisms at all levels to promote the advancement of women and inequality between men and women in all levels of decision-making;
  • the stereotyping of women as well as women’s inequality in access to and participation in communication systems and media; and
  • gender inequalities in the management of natural resources and in protecting the environment.

In response to the Declaration, the Government of Canada published Setting the Stage for the Next Century: The Federal Plan for Gender Equality in 1995. This plan included commitments centred on eight of the Declaration’s objectives, including the commitment to apply gender-based analysis (GBA) to the work of all federal departments and agencies, a commitment that was renewed in 2015. The Government of Canada now applies gender-based analysis plus (GBA+), instead of GBA, which expands the analysis to include various identity characteristics in addition to sex and gender.

While global progress towards achieving gender equality continues, the COVID-19 pandemic may slow this progress. A UN Women policy brief noted that 2020, with the 25th anniversary of the Declaration, was meant to be a “ground-breaking year” for gender equality. However, the pandemic has exacerbated existing gender inequalities and could “roll back” the “limited gains made in the past decades.”

Gender Equality in Canada

Despite the progress made in Canada in recent decades, inequality and discrimination based on sex and gender persist in a number of areas. In its 2016 report on Canada’s eighth and ninth periodic reports, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women raised concerns and issued recommendations regarding multiple forms of sex- and gender-based inequality and discrimination in Canada, including those relating to access to justice, gender-based violence against girls, women and Indigenous women, and women’s participation in public and political life.

With reference to the critical areas of concern set out in the Declaration, here are some examples of inequalities between women and men in Canada:

  • Representation of women in leadership and decision-making positions: Women remain underrepresented in leadership and decision-making positions in Canada, including on boards of directors and in electoral politics. In 2017, a Statistics Canada study found that 18% of directors of corporations operating in Canada were women. Similarly, as of 28 August 2020, women held 28% of the seats in the House of Commons.
  • Violence: Rates of self-reported violent victimization and police-reported crime in Canada are higher among women than among men. A Statistics Canada analysis revealed that sexual assault is the only type of incident of violent victimization measured by the General Social Survey on Victimization whose rate did not decline between 1999 and 2014. Nearly 90% of victims of sexual assault in Canada are women.

Incidents of Violent Victimization Reported by Canadians, By Offence Type
1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014

The figure is a clustered column bar chart showing four categories: total, sexual assault, robbery and physical assault. The chart shows the victimization rate per 1,000 people aged 15 and older. Sexual assault is the only type of incident of violent victimization whose rate did not drop between 1999 and 2014.

Source: Samuel Perreault, “Criminal victimization in Canada, 2014,” Juristat, Statistics Canada, 2015.

  • Wage gap between men and women: Women in Canada earn on average 13.3% less per hour than men, which means women earn 87 cents for every dollar earned by men. While the gender wage gap has shrunk over the past 20 years, it persists because of the gendered distribution of jobs by industry and occupation, the higher rate of part-time work among women and other factors that remain largely unexplained. Further analysis is required to determine these factors. Statistics Canada notes that any gender-related biases linked to the gender wage gap are included in this unexplained portion.

Gender Wage Gap, Employees Aged 25 to 54, 1998 to 2018

The figure is a line graph with a curve showing the change in the gender wage gap between 1998 and 2018. The gender wage gap declined from 18.8% in 1998 to 13.3% in 2018.

Source: Rachelle Pelletier, Martha Patterson and Melissa Moyser, “The gender wage gap in Canada: 1998 to 2018,” Labour Statistics: Research Papers, Statistics Canada, 11 October 2019.

  • Some women may also be victims of discrimination or face greater inequality because of other identity factors, including religion, sexual orientation and age; these characteristics can amplify the impact of the sex- or gender-based inequality and discrimination they experience.

How Can Parliaments Foster Gender Equality?

To foster greater gender equality, parliaments and parliamentarians can incorporate a gender lens into all work. The Inter-Parliamentary Union reports that making parliamentary work gender-sensitive “recognizes the economic, social, political and legal differences that exist between women and men.” For example, parliaments and parliamentarians can ensure budgets are analyzed through a gender lens by encouraging parliamentary budget debates about the implications for men and women. Moreover, parliamentarians can develop policies and action plans that promote gender equality and specify how gender issues are integrated into their work.

During the 42nd and 43rd Parliaments, a number of legislative measures and parliamentary committee studies on women’s rights and gender equality were passed or presented. Some examples follow:

Additional Resources

Canada’s National Review, Implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995) in the Context of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, May 2019.

Interparliamentary Union, Parliament, the Budget and Gender, 2004.

UN Women, Gender equality: Women’s rights in review 25 years after Beijing, 2020.

UN Women, Spotlight on Gender, COVID-19 and the SDGs: Will the Pandemic Derail Hard-Won Progress on Gender Equality?, July 2020.

Authors: Clare Annett and Dominique Montpetit, Library of Parliament