Skip to main content

6 ways to make life better for women in the GTA

March 01, 2024 by Stacy Lee Kong

Graphic images of places around globe
Illustrations by Vivian Rosas

How do you eliminate poverty for women in the GTA? Start by creating smart public policies, like these places around the globe did.

Linda experienced poverty—and homelessness—for years. Once a registered nurse, she lost her job, her home and custody of her son because of addiction. She has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression and bipolar disorder. She’s sober now and working as a customer service representative. But the 61-year-old is still experiencing poverty—and that’s for reasons completely unrelated to her mental or physical health. Linda’s wages are low enough that she still needs to depend on the Ontario Disability Support Program. On her income, she can’t find safe, affordable housing. “Being a woman in poverty, I just don’t think that the same opportunities are out there,” she says. “I think men have more opportunities.”

Linda isn’t far off. As in the rest of the country, women in the GTA are paid less for the same work. They’re also more likely to have low-paying and precarious jobs, and hold responsibility for childcare and elder care. All of this means they are more likely to experience poverty than men.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Elsewhere in the country and around the world, there are programs and policies that are making life better for women. Here are six we’d like to see implemented to improve life for women in the GTA.

1. Affordable and accessible childcare

A 2023 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives states almost half of Canadian children live in “childcare deserts.” And the high costs of childcare have also long been a barrier for many women in the GTA too.

Quebec has had a strong model of subsidized childcare, allowing more young parents to re-enter the workforce, since 1996. Parents in the province pay for childcare on a sliding scale, thanks to government subsidies. Their children can attend subsidized centres de la petite enfance (CPE) or alternatively private centres or home-based care. In those cases, the government reimburses families for up to 75 percent of the cost through a tax credit. The 2024 price for subsidized day care is $9.10 per day.

The past few years did bring improvements for women in the GTA, through new provincial and federal childcare programs. Ontarian families with children under six saw fees halved in December 2022, compared to 2020 rates. Although fees are still higher than in Quebec, Ontario has promised an average of $10-a-day early learning and childcare fees, by March 2026. And they’ve committed to 86,000 new licensed child care spaces by the end of 2026.

Graphic image of women on top of buildings

2. Improved access to affordable housing

For women in the GTA experiencing poverty, affordable, safe housing is crucial yet increasingly difficult to come by. United Way co-authored an action plan for housing stability in Ontario, “Bringing Affordable Housing Home,” which demonstrates the devastating impact of housing insecurity on individuals, families and communities, and proposes a roadmap for change.

Elsewhere creative solutions to housing issues are making all the difference. Imagine living in the country’s largest metropolitan area and paying only a few hundred dollars in rent. That’s the case in Vienna, where 62 percent of residents live in city-built, -sponsored or -managed housing. They only pay between $470 and $600 in monthly rent, according to the Austrian Federation of Limited-Profit Housing Associations.

Implementing a strategy like Vienna’s in the GTA wouldn’t be easy. Austria has a century-long history of investing in public housing, and the city receives millions of dollars in federal funding. According to a 2018 report, Vienna finances social housing by levying a 1 percent tax on all residents. Half of that gets deducted from their wages and the other half comes from employer matching programs. Now imagine that proposed in the GTA, where income tax increases aren’t exactly a popular move.

Graphic image of calendar with entries

3. Paying women in the GTA a living wage

With high inflation rates and an affordable housing crisis, many people are struggling to pay rent and buy groceries. In Ontario, wages are not keeping pace with rapidly rising costs of living. The minimum wage in Ontario is $16.55/hour in 2024, but a living wage in the GTA is $25.05/hour. This gap has a huge impact on low-income individuals and families, creating food insecurity and chronic stress.

One solution is to change the conversation from instituting a minimum wage to instituting a liveable one. That’s what happened in Emeryville, California. There, the minimum wage was gradually raised to $18.67, about 2.5 times the U.S. federally mandated minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

Several studies have found correlations between a higher minimum wage and improved health outcomes. Better-paid workers have fewer unmet health needssmoke less and live longer. And that’s not even counting the mental health benefits.

4. Eliminating the gender-wage gap

“There has been a wage gap between women and men historically, traditionally and continuing on to today,” says Katie Didyk, communications coordinator at Times Change Women’s Employment Services, a United Way–funded organization. “Women only make 87 cents for every dollar a man earns. That’s a problem. That’s an issue that keeps women at the poverty level.”

Didyk says there’s one relatively easy solution: pay transparency. “Doing that brings in a more diverse group, of course, but it’s also levelling the playing field,” she says. “Women now can have a sense of exactly what their negotiating [power] can be.”

Some governments have taken a firm stance on pay transparency. Since 2001, France and Sweden have required employers to review their pay practices. The U.K. improved protections for workers who disclose their wages, more than a decade ago. And Iceland became the first country to make the wage gap illegal. In 2018, it passed a law forcing companies with 25-plus employees to prove they pay men and women equally.

To be fair, in 2018, Ontario did pass the Pay Transparency Act. This would require employers to include a salary rate or range with every job posting. Companies employing more than 100 people, would have to track wage gaps based on gender and other characteristics. The Act would also prohibit asking job applicants about past compensation and punishing employees who discuss their wages. It was supposed to come into effect on Jan. 1, 2019, but the Ontario government introduced legislation in November 2018 that delayed its implementation. In 2024, the Ontario government will finally mandate employers to disclose salary ranges in job postings.

5. Ending gender-based violence for women in the GTA

Gender-based violence keeps women in poverty—and, Didyk says, it’s a problem that intersects with other issues. “It cross-sections with everything. It doesn’t allow women to move on to better housing. Their health is affected. They tend to be on social assistance. And it’s certainly work-related, too,” she says.

According to authors and academics David L. Richards and Jillienne Haglund, strong laws can help. “Countries with greater domestic legal protections against gender violence have less gender-based inequality, greater levels of human development and lower female HIV rates,” they wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

Canada does have strong laws in this area. In fact, several provinces, including Ontario, have a panel intended to study and prevent domestic violence—here, it’s the Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee—but there’s sometimes a problem with follow-through. In a 2019 Maclean’s article, the Ontario committee’s chair, Deirdre Bainbridge, said that while the group makes recommendations to several agencies, she has only seen a handful of responses over the past two years. On the opposite end of the spectrum in Australia, the Coroner’s Act requires not only a response to any recommendations but also that it be made public. That’s powerful because it means the government is held immediately and consistently to account — something that would go a long way toward improving Ontario’s performance in this area.

Graphic image of woman holding toothbrush

6. Improved access to health care

According to a 2018 article in JAMA, “low-income adults are more than three times as likely to have limitations with routine activities (like eating, bathing, and dressing) due to chronic illness, compared with more affluent individuals.

And poverty doesn’t just cause poor health; poor health can also perpetuate poverty, even in a country like Canada that has a universal health-care system. People experiencing poverty may not see the same doctor consistently, which means it’s more difficult to stay on top of chronic health conditions. And, while our health care is covered, prescription drugs, vision and dental care are not—and those costs can quickly become overwhelming. This is especially true for women. According to a 2015 report by the Wellesley Institute, a non-partisan think tank focused on urban health, Canadian women are less likely to have employer-provided benefits than men, likely because they are more often doing precarious work.

But consider the difference a comprehensive healthcare program could make. The U.K.’s famed National Health Service has a program called the Low-Income Scheme. It covers prescriptions, dental, eye care, health-care travel costs and some additional items (including wigs and surgical bras). In 2024, the Canadian government is rolling out a dental care plan, for many Canadians without health insurance. But there’s still a need for more support for the uninsured, in other areas of health care.

Obstacles in every area of life, make it harder for women and their families to thrive. Empowered women make for stronger and brighter communities. Looking to examples outside of our cities, province and country shows there are better ways of addressing the full gamut of issues women face. A little creative thinking goes a long way in shaping a more equitable GTA for all.

Share this article: