Women’s History Month: October is a Celebration of Advances


Table of Contents

By Joyce Wayne

If you’re retired or about to retire, looking back over the last 60 years is worth doing. October is Women’s History Month in Canada and one of the most significant changes during this period was the number and the levels of women in the workforce. When we were children, the majority of our mothers stayed at home, tended to their children and husband, kept the home, and relied on “the man of the house” to handle the finances and important decisions. Women with post-secondary degrees or careers often left their education and work experience behind them when they married. I even clearly recall listening to others discuss attending university as the best hunting-ground to find a good husband.

Those days are long gone. Both the first wave of feminism and the second wave changed the way we live in Canada. During this October’s Canadian History Month, I’m looking back on how women changed history, and worked to improve the education, influence and careers of their peers. Here’s a short primer on who did it and how:

Women making history

The improvement in the lives of women in Canada started a hundred years ago with Nellie McClung (1873-1951). McClung was an early Canadian first-wave feminist or suffragette, a politician, author, and social activist. She, more than anyone else, was responsible for Canadian women fighting not only for the right to vote, but also to be considered legally as “persons.”  By 1916, as a result of McClung’s and her group’s activities, most provinces gave Canadian women the right to vote and later would allow them to hold office.

As a direct outcome of McClung’s tireless work to have women legally considered as persons, Agnes Macphail (1890-1954) was the first woman elected to the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament. Macphail was elected in 1921, the first year a women could run in a federal election, and she was re-elected in 1925, 1926, and 1930 federal elections. Throughout her life, she worked to improve the lives of Canadian women by championing issues such as worker’s rights, prison reform, Seniors’ pension, and gender equity.

After Macphail, there was no stopping Canadian women and our purposeful involvement in federal, provincial, and local politics. If anyone is historically responsible for today’s Federal Cabinet parity between men and women, it would be McClung and Macphail, who both faced enormous opposition to their suffragette cause.

Since then, change has continued. Here are some of the major changes that have affected Canadian women’s lives during the last ten years.

Population of women in Canada

Canada Is Facing Demographic Shifts Due to a Growing and Aging Population

As of July 1, 2021, women represented slightly more than half (50.6%) of Canada’s total population. There are 18.4-million women and girls in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.

By 2031, nearly one-quarter (22.7%) of the total female population is projected to be 65 or older, up from 17.5% in 2019.

Canadian Women Are Becoming More Diverse

In 2021, more than one-quarter of all Canadian women and girls were women of colour.

  • By 2031, over 30% of Canadian women may be women of colour.

Education for women

The education of women in Canada has increased significantly over the past decades. In 2021, 36.1% of women aged 25 to 64 years had a bachelor’s degree or higher, which was almost three times greater than the proportion of women with a bachelor’s degree or higher in 1991 (12.7%). In fact, more Canadian women have obtained university-level degrees or above.

Just over a third (36.1) of Canadian women had a university level of education in 2021, compared with 29% of men. However, only 7% of Canadian women obtained post-secondary non-tertiary education, which includes certificates and diplomas in traditionally male-dominated trades such as energy, construction, and agriculture, compared with 14% of men.

Women labour force participation

Over the past several decades, women’s labour force participation in Canada has increased. In 1981, 57.7% of women aged 25 to 64 years were in the labour force. Forty years later, more than three-quarters (76.5%) of women participated in the labour force.  

However, parity remains elusive for women in the private sector. In 2019, women were overrepresented (63.3%) in the public sector, but underrepresented (45.1%) in the private sector.

Women in leadership

Only 24 (or about 3.5%) of TSX-listed Canadian companies had a woman CEO as of July 2019.

  • Women represented an average of 17.9% of executive officers in S&P/TSX Composite Index companies as of December 2019.

Percentage of Women Employed by Occupation in Canada

All Management Occupations


Senior Management Occupations


Specialized Middle Management Occupations


Middle Management Occupations in Retail & Wholesale Trade and Customer Services


Middle Management Occupations in Trades, Transportation, Production and Utilities


Gender pay gap

Canada’s Gender Pay Gap Has Narrowed Over the Past Twenty Years

Among employees aged 25 to 54, the gender wage gap decreased 7.7 percentage points to 11.1% from 1998 to 2021. Wages grew faster for core-aged women than for core-aged men over this period. Specifically, the average hourly wages of female employees increased 28.6%, while men’s increased 17.4%.

Additionally, women disproportionately shoulder caregiving responsibilities. Women spend, on average, 3 hours and 44 minutes per day on unpaid work, compared with an average of 2 hours and 28 minutes for men.

As these statistics reveal, Canadian women still have a way to go to achieve wage parity. Yet, on the whole, there is much to celebrate during Women’s History Month and much to look forward to.

(These facts and figures are derived from Statistics Canada and Catalyst: Workplaces that Work for Women.)

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