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Women in the Labour Force

Women office workers, Land Titles Office, Regina, ca. 1913-1914.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-A21768

Traditionally, reference to women in the labour force has focused on women in the paid labour force. Yet in Saskatchewan's agricultural-based economy, as in many other Canadian communities, economic development relied greatly on women's unpaid labour. The 1871 Order-in-Council that became the Dominion Lands Act of 1872 allowed for a basic 160-acre grant to any family head or male of 21 years of age, subject to a $10 fee. However, it was the proof of cultivation and residence in the homestead, usually for at least three years, that allowed for the acquisition of more land and access to more and better acreage. Farming relied on rudimentary tools, backbreaking work, and a short and demanding climate cycle. By law it was male farmers who owned the means of production, organized the work, sold the produce, and managed the proceeds. Wives, sisters, and daughters were the unpaid help. For women on Saskatchewan farms it was not until 1907 that a law concerning married women's property rights allowed them to hold, administer, and dispose of property. Yet when the first Bureau of Labour was added to the Department of Agriculture in 1911, provisions for employment services still targeted “farm labourers” and “domestics” as distinct gender categories for subsidized passage to Saskatchewan from Great Britain, reflecting the stereotypes of the day.

The earliest laws related to women who worked outside the farm gate were found in federal legislation of the 1880s and 1890s. These included child labour laws and provisions under the Factories Act, pieces of legislation that an 1889 Royal Commission on Labour identified as poorly drafted and poorly enforced. While the legislation restricted hours of work to a maximum forty-eight hours a week and disallowed night work between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., with one meal break for a full day's work, most small shops were excluded from the legislation. Workplaces included were almost never monitored. Related legislation called “Masters and Servants Acts” helped insure that employers retained an upper hand with employees such as clerks, apprentices, service workers and others, often hired or contracted for little pay other than room and board. Stiff fines or imprisonment could result from broken contracts or absences without leave, or for failing to obey the employer or perform specific duties.

The notion of women as domestic helpers not entitled to equal property rights, salaries, or decision making to support independence provided the backdrop to the struggle of Saskatchewan women for equality in the labour market - a goal yet to be achieved across Canada. While Saskatchewan was one of the first provinces after Manitoba to receive the vote in 1916, working conditions for women improved little during the first part of the 20th century. The years prior to World War I, particularly from 1906 to 1912, saw growth in the cities that led to the development of an urban working class including building tradesmen, painters, typographical workers, and city and railway workers. Union activity for better wages and working conditions targeted these traditionally male-dominated jobs. Many union contracts distinguished between skilled and unskilled workers, offering more favourable provisions for skilled workers, again usually male.

With World War II, women replaced men on the farm, in ammunitions plants, railways, shops and banks, earning 50% to 80% of the wages men earned. Hours of work increased while working conditions deteriorated in the name of patriotism. With the end of the war, minimum wage laws were introduced in Saskatchewan in 1920 but would continue to follow a two-tiered approach. At first, minimum wages only applied to shops and factories in the cities, and as they were expanded reflected a system that valued men's work more highly than women's. Minimum wage orders continued to reflect this two-tiered system into the 1970s, favouring construction, well-drilling, truck driving, logging and lumbering work over female-dominated care giving and retail sales. Union contracts in many establishments also reflected gender biases, with clerical professions slotted at the bottom of wage-and-benefit scales even though unionized workers fared better than did those who were not organized.

Women's work in Saskatchewan leading up to and following World War II continued to be treated as secondary. Women were forced to leave jobs because they married, and certainly because of pregnancy. They were required to leave jobs when men returned from war. Seats in professional schools such as law, engineering and medicine were reserved for men while women were not expected to apply. With the rare exception, managers, professors, school principals, and trade union leaders were men. Skilled trades and politics were the purview of men.

In Saskatchewan the struggle for stronger labour laws and property rights including pensions, maternity leave, equal pay, and non-discriminatory treatment in the workplace regardless of gender or marital status, was taken up by women in both the public and private sectors. Early initiatives were supported by the creation of a one- person Women's Bureau in 1964, followed by an expanded Women's Secretariat and the Women's Division of the 1970s. An activist Human Rights Commission, along with enhanced funding for women's groups following the 1971 Royal Commission on the Status of Women, also helped move the agenda forward in the 1970s. Unions, especially the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour and women's groups such as Saskatchewan Working Women, which had active chapters in most corners of Saskatchewan, addressed workplace issues such as sexual harassment, affirmative action, technological change, daycare, pay equity, and the role of women in unions.

Maternity leave, included under the Unemployment Insurance Act in 1971, became a workable reality for Saskatchewan women by 1973, when the province introduced its first Maternity Leave provisions under the Labour Standards Act. The legislation was enforced vigorously for a period of time by the Woman's Division, and made more flexible in 1976 to ensure the right of women to return to their jobs. Waiting periods and the length of benefit period gradually increased through the 1990s, currently coinciding with the federal employment legislation which permits a year's leave. “Equal pay for comparable work” legislation was introduced in 1965, later amended to permit referrals of an equal-pay dispute to the Human Rights Commission, with penalties for non-compliance. Saskatchewan's legislation was seen to be a little stronger than the standard “equal pay for equal work” legislation that was starting to be implemented across the country, and “comparable work” set the stage for “equal pay for similar work” legislation in 1973. Under this provision similar work in the same establishment, requiring similar skill, effort and responsibilities as well as working conditions, paved the way for future debate about equal pay for work of equal value, a concept not yet enacted in Saskatchewan. By 1976 legislation adopted the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour's suggestion that wages of other employees not be reduced to accommodate an equal-pay ruling. Paternity, adoption and bereavement leave, and graduated notice of termination linked to technological change also helped women gain more equal footing in the workplace by the early 1980s.

Other changes to legislation included the enforcement of Maintenance Orders in 1986, and the introduction of a Saskatchewan Family Income Plan (FIP) in the early 1970s. FIP, when first introduced in the mid-1970s, was designed to ensure that children would not fall below the poverty line if their family income was no higher than minimum wage. Governments allowed it to be eroded by not building in an inflation factor, but later it helped establish a model on which to build the National Child Tax Benefit. The Saskatchewan Women's Division, unions, and community women's groups also played a significant role in mobilizing women to support the inclusion of the equality provision in the Constitutional amendments of 1983, including a Charter of Rights that led to the gradual elimination of discriminatory clauses in many pieces of legislation. Noteworthy were changes to widow's benefits under the Workers' Compensation Act (benefits were eliminated on remarriage), and pension benefit legislation (pensions died with the contributor - usually the husband).

Despite improvements, Saskatchewan women still face inequality in the working world whether the work is paid or unpaid. In terms of work in the home, studies consistently show women doing more unpaid work than men. Working women still earn less than 70% of men's wages, and their participation in the paid work force is still lower than men's (60% versus 72%).

Merran Proctor

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