The Association of Early Childhood Educators Ontario (AECEO) is the professional association for Early Childhood Educators (ECEs) in Ontario. We support ECEs in their professional practice and advocate for recognition and appropriate compensation for the profession. Our members are working throughout Ontario in programs for young children and their families, including regulated child care, full-day kindergarten, family resource programs and support services for children with disabilities, among others.
As ECEs, we strongly support the calls from individuals and organizations for a publicly funded, high quality, universal child care system as a key solution to closing the gender wage gap in Ontario. We know firsthand how critical this service is for supporting equal economic and social opportunities for women. We also know the impact that high quality care has on children and their families as a vital support for early childhood development and for strong and healthy communities.
In line with our mandate to advocate on behalf of the ECE profession, our response will focus on how a publicly funded child care system is also key to closing the gender wage gap experienced by early childhood educators (ECEs) and early childhood assistants working within licensed child care (which we will refer to as the child care workforce).
A brief background will provide the context and working realities for the child care workforce, followed by a description of the impact that the gender wage gap has on the workforce, programs, communities and the ECE profession, and how societal attitudes impact the gender wage gap experienced by this workforce. Our conclusion provides specific solutions to address the gender wage gap for the child care workforce.
Child care provision in Ontario reinforces the gender wage gap in two ways. As a market-based system, regulated child care in Ontario cannot meet the needs of working women (or parents). Reliance on privatized services/arrangements to deliver child care has resulted in limited growth in services, inequitable access for families, inflexible services that cannot meet the range of family-needs, unaffordable fees and ongoing concerns with quality. At the same time, the market-based system has resulted in a constant pressure to keep wages for this almost entirely female workforce low as they are directly tied to the fees charged to parents. Despite increased professionalization and recognition of the importance of their work, the child care workforce actually subsidizes the true cost of these services through their low wages.
Decades of Canadian and international research have confirmed that child care delivered through a market-based system, one that depends mostly on user fees to cover the cost of services, cannot provide fair wages and working conditions for the child care workforce. As the largest item in the budget, compensation and benefits for the staff in a market-based approach to services is the most obvious item to be limited to keep user fees affordable.
Low wages for the child care workforce have been acknowledged through government initiatives that provide funding (i.e. wage enhancement grants) to child care programs to supplement the cost of staff wages. While this funding has contributed in some measure to some improvement in compensation for the child care workforce, it has failed to get to the root of the problem. Staff wages cannot be tied to parents’ ability to pay fees or to precarious funding streams in the form of grants and subsidies. Indeed, all the evidence points to the need for a systemic approach to supply side (base or direct) public funding for child care programs with a formula that takes into account and provides funds both for adequate wages and affordable parent fees.
The above reality presents us with a severe contradiction. As a key social program for supporting working women, child care as it is currently set up actually perpetuates the marginalization and exploitation of another group of women. As we have argued elsewhere, “the child care market model has been built on a foundation of gender inequalities. The model fails both working mothers... and the women who educate and care for their children”1. Perhaps the best example of this contradiction is the fact that the majority of the child care workforce themselves cannot afford the cost of licensed child care for their own children.
What is the impact of the gender wage gap for the child care workforce, the ECE profession, programs and communities?
In Ontario, wages and working conditions for the child care workforce in the private sector (this includes both non-profit and for-profit organizations) vary dramatically and there is typically limited recognition through compensation of education, experience, increasing expectations and on-going professional learning. The impact is devastating as many ECEs choose to leave the work that they love when they are faced with financial insecurity both in their current working lives and heading into retirement.
Canadian research has consistently indentified low wages as the primary reason that people choose to leave their work in child care. The most recent national survey reported that, “despite high levels of job satisfaction, the number of people intending to leave their employment in the regulated child care sector actually increased slightly when compared to responses to this question in 1998”2. In Ontario over 30% of non-unionized staff in licensed child care programs were looking for another job and staff with higher levels of training were more likely to be looking for another job. These data also showed a decrease in average hourly wages in licensed child care in Ontario and limited advancement around other working conditions including access to paid sick time, health benefits, pensions, paid preparation time and professional learning.
Despite persistently low wages, the idea that ECEs possess specialized knowledge and skills and are the key to high quality programs has been gaining recognition. The Ontario government has recognized the unique skills and contributions ECE professionals make to programs for young children in a number of recent policy initiatives and documents. Most recently, the government has released a curriculum framework to guide practice in early years’ programs and settings that clearly identifies ECEs as “knowledgeable, caring, reflective, and resourceful professionals”3. The establishment of the College of Early Childhood Educators through the passing of the Early Childhood Educators Act, 2007 also indicates that ECEs are highly skilled professionals who are held accountable to the public through strict Standards of Practice, a Code of Ethics and on-going professional learning.
Increasing expectations and recognition of the skills and expertise that ECEs possess have prompted initiatives to increase pre-service training and professional learning for the child care workforce along with other strategies to improve program quality. We support the use of public funding and resources going towards many of these initiatives. However, these efforts are compromised without equal or greater investments in the working conditions and compensation needed to support the child care workforce and recruit and retain highly trained and passionate professionals.
Public investments in the child care workforce, both through pre-service training and in-service supports, are inefficient if they are reaching people who cannot afford to continue their work in child care. Increasing numbers of students are choosing not to continue in the field after their initial training because of low wages and limited job opportunities. Investing in wages and working conditions, the factors that will recruit and retain a high quality child care workforce, is arguably a much more efficient and effective use of our public resources.
Furthermore, the government’s stated objectives and desired outcomes for high quality early childhood education and care are unattainable within the current situation. Recruitment, retention, turnover, and low morale plague the workforce and the programs that they work in. These challenges have a profound impact on the quality of child care programs and continue to inhibit the advancement of the ECE profession and their work.
A considerable body of research has identified that staff in early childhood programs are the most important element of quality and that staff qualifications and wages are the most important predictors for high quality programs. Canadian findings from the You Bet I Care! report4 on quality in child care centres support the large and growing body of international research showing that, ‘adult work environment variables’ such as wages and working conditions, and ‘staff variables’ such as the level of ECE specific training and job satisfaction have a predictable and statistically significant impact on program quality and staff-child interactions.
Finally, low wages in licensed child care have a ripple effect reinforcing lower wages and limited recognition in other positions commonly held by ECEs such as family support workers in family resource programs. Although these jobs are often publicly funded, hourly wages are low compared to other publicly funded positions. ECEs working in Ontario Early Years Programs have not seen a publicly funded raise in over ten years.
Women’s work and societal attitudes
The Gender Wage Gap Strategy Steering Committee’s background research and supporting materials have clearly identified the issue of ‘women’s work’ and occupational segregation as a key factor in the persistence of the gender wage gap. The Committee has asked for responses to the question: what societal attitudes contribute to the gender wage gap? For the child care workforce, all these factors play a very important role in the struggle to close the gender wage gap.
Caring for and educating young children is intensely gendered work and societal attitudes continue to devalue this work as unskilled and of little economic value. This is, first and foremost, prevalent in relation to another one of the Committee’s concerns about the disproportionate amount of unpaid caregiving activities performed by women. As a society, we have not come to fully value the labour of caring for young children despite the large evidence base that shows the social and economic value of these activities. When this work is replaced by paid caregivers, the devaluation is translated onto their work along with the assumptions that this work is unskilled, reliant on the ‘natural’ abilities of women, and emotionally rewarding as opposed to financially rewarding.
The above societal attitudes also contribute to the perception that child care is a private family responsibility and optimally provided by mothers in the home. When mothers enter the labour force, it is expected that child care should be met through private arrangements involving other women as paid caregivers. This approach further denies the public value and contribution that this caring labour provides overall, and hinders the investment of public resources into services considered to be replacing care that was typically provided in the private home.
The on-going invisibility and devaluation of care work in our public discourse limits full recognition and support of the child care workforce, as well as our collective ability to argue for public support for this work. This approach commodifies an essential public and social service, neglecting the rights of women, children and the professionals providing the service. The government has a role to play in pushing back against these negative societal attitudes and addressing the rights of women and children through access to appropriate supports and pay equity in all sectors where women’s work is systemically devalued.
Closing the gender wage gap for the child care workforce
Closing the gender wage gap for the child care workforce requires increased public funding for licensed child care to ensure affordable fees and professional wages. Wages should be based on regional wage scales that recognize qualified staff, experience and continuous professional learning5. A wage scale supported by base funding for licensed child care will equitably raise the salaries, working conditions and morale of the child care workforce.
A standardized wage scale in the child care sector will ensure staff with equivalent education and work responsibilities are paid a similar rate of pay no matter where they work within a particular region. These initiatives would further contribute to higher stability and more consistent quality across programs and across geographic regions. A wage scale in the licensed child care sector could also be used to determine appropriate wages for ECEs in other child and family support services.
Pay equity legislation already lays out a legal framework to address wages for the child care workforce. As part of the proxy sector, child care can only achieve pay equity with adequate levels of public funding, concrete deadlines and monitored implementation plans. Our research shows that wages for the child care workforce in the proxy sector have not kept up to their comparators in the public sector (municipally operated child care centres) where pay equity has been achieved and maintained. Average hourly maximum wages are over $10 greater where pay equity has been successfully maintained for the child care workforce working within the public sector6. Regional wage scales for licensed child care must take into account existing pay equity legislation and pay equity formulas that have been used to determine appropriate wages for the child care workforce.
A publicly funded child care system that is high quality, affordable, and flexible, is key to closing the gender wage gap for women in Ontario. But this service cannot be based on the burden of marginalized and devalued care work that other women assume. A publicly funded child care system will alleviate a chronic gender wage gap in a fundamental women’s occupation. Since wages are the most significant factor in providing quality early education and care programs, our public dollars are best spent in supporting a high quality workforce that is professionally prepared, valued, and compensated. Publicly funded child care is a win-win for Ontario; supporting women, children and families while closing the wage gap for a significant number of women working in a notoriously segregated occupation.
1 Halfon, S. & Langford, R. (2015). Developing a high quality child care workforce in Canada: What are the barriers to change? Ours Schools/Ours Selves, 24(4), pp 131 – 144. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
2 Flanagan, K., Beach, J. & Varmuza, P. (2013). You bet we still care! A survey of centre based early childhood education and care in Canada. Highlights Report. Ottawa, ON: Child Care Human Resources Sector Council.
3 Ministry of Education (2014). How does learning happen? Ontario’s pedagogy for the early years. Toronto: Author.
4 Doherty, G., Lero, D., Goelman, H., LaGrange, A. & Tougas, J. (2000). You bet I care! A Canada-wide study on wages, working conditions and practices in child care centres. ON: Centres for Families, Work and Well-Being: University of Guelph.
5 Association of Early Childhood Educators Ontario (2015). Regional wage scales for RECEs working in regulated child care in Ontario: A discussion paper. Toronto: Author.
6 Association of Early Childhood Educators Ontario (2015). Regional wage scales for RECEs working in regulated child care in Ontario: A discussion paper. Toronto: Author.