Canadian and American flags at the U.S./Canada border March 1, in Pittsburg, N.H. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Attention, liberal Americans prone to swooning over our northern neighbor because of their dreamy prime minister, sensible gun laws and staunch commitment to multiculturalism. You've got one more thing to add to your list: According to a new report from Citigroup, Canada is much better than the United States at getting women into the workforce.

Women in that country are more likely to work, and work longer hours, than their U.S. counterparts. However, neither Canada nor the United States has come close to closing the pay gap between men and women, a blemish on both countries' gender equality records. (Canada ranks 18th among “very high human development countries” on this metric; the United States ranks 45th.)

Looking at how many women are working is important because not too long ago, few were able to work outside the home at all. Though women were called to the factory floors during World Wars I and II, they mostly kept out of the labor force. And those who did work were relegated to such traditionally “female jobs” as teacher, nurse or secretary. (Perhaps not so coincidentally, those jobs pay much less.)

That began to change in the 1950s, when female participation jumped in both countries because of push (the cost of homes and college education shot up, creating a need for two incomes) and pull factors (the women's equality movement opened up opportunities for women they'd previously been denied).

Between 1950 and 1990, U.S. and Canadian women joined the workforce at about equal rates. But starting in the '90s, something changed. The participation rate for Canadian women kept rising. But in the United States, it stagnated. Today, Canadian women work more hours than women in the United States. There are some other differences, too — highly educated Canadian women work more than their American counterparts. There are fewer “discouraged” job seekers in Canada.


According to Citigroup, Canadian women have continued to narrow the participation gap for a couple of reasons. For one thing, Canada offers much more support for families. The government mandates paid parental leave of 52 weeks, meaning that mothers and fathers have more time and flexibility. Canada also has a national system of early learning and child-care centers subsidized by the government.

This is important. Many women in the United States leave the workforce when they have children because it doesn't make economic sense for them to work. Child care can be prohibitively expensive in the United States, and there's also a chronic shortage of space. Other times, new mothers intend to leave their jobs for only a couple of years, but they struggle to come back. Canadian universities have tried to ameliorate this problem by offering “back-to-work” programs for professional women, designed to help people return to the labor force after years away.

The United States has no federal mandates to support equal pay. No one is guaranteed paid leave. And there's little public investment in child care.

But even though more women are working, they're making less than their male counterparts on average in both North American countries. One explanation for that? Women in Canada and the United States are overrepresented in part-time and nonstandard work. That means they accept jobs with fewer hours and benefits, which results in lower incomes.