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Quebec’s Pay Equity Act: Significant progress toward professional equality for women?


This article reflects on Quebec’s Pay Equity Act, which has been in force for more than 20 years. I examine the limited effects of the implementation of this proactive measure. I also express some doubts as to the attainment of pay equity within businesses. Without denying the law’s potential for change, my observations show that the Pay Equity Act is struggling to redress the wage gap in men’s favor and to increase professional equality for women.

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  1. Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms was adopted in 1975. Articles 10 and 19 are about the right to equality. Hence, according to Article 10 of the Charter, every person has a right to full and equal recognition and exercise of human rights and freedoms, without distinction, exclusion or preference based on race, color, sex, etc. As for Article 19, it concerns pay equity more specifically and is phrased as follows: “Every employer must, without discrimination, grant equal salary or wages to the members of his personnel who perform equivalent work at the same place”.

  2. Fraser (2005: 82) envisages redistribution and recognition as two dimensions of justice that are not reducible to each other, because in real life, different axes of oppression are intertwined and interdependent, or even simultaneous, particularly in the case of oppression based on sex. She also proposes an “alternative strategy” relying on “non-reformist reforms”, i.e., reforms that aim to trigger transformation in the statutory order, not only directly, through change in the institutional features they explicitly target, but also politically, by altering the terrain on which later struggles will be waged (Ibid.: 33).

  3. Resulting from direct immersion in organizational settings and in-depth interaction with concerned parties in various businesses in the context of my professional practice, my analysis of pay equity processes was aimed at unlocking new avenues of reflection concerning the scope and effects of applying the Pay Equity Act.

  4. The notion of equal opportunity appeared for the first time at the 26th Conference of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which took place on May 10, 1944, in Philadelphia, PA. The notion would be elaborated upon in the ILO’s Convention 111, adopted in 1958, which connects the struggle against discrimination to equal opportunity, as well as in the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, of December 18, 1979. See Eddy Lee (1994). La Déclaration de Philadelphie: rétrospective et prospective. Revue internationale du Travail, 133 (4).

  5. This refers to actions and demands stemming from second-wave feminism and from the Black minority’s struggle for civil rights in the 1960s.

  6. The term “positive action” covers a range of concepts: “Affirmative Action” (USA), “positive discrimination” (France), “employment equity” (Canada), “equal access to employment” (Quebec).

  7. The expression “glass ceiling” came into common use to describe the phenomenon of vertical segregation in professional environments after it was used in a 1986 article in the Wall Street Journal. It refers to the barriers that exclude women from the highest ranks of most organizations, particularly “executive management” and “intellectual” positions (those that require a college degree). See I.L.O. (2004): “Breaking through the Glass Ceiling: Women in Management”. For a critique of positive-action policies in the USA., see Mouna Viprey (2005): “La politique d’affirmative action;” Chronique internationale de l’IRES, No. 93, March; Joan Scott (2002), “L’énigme de l’égalité,” (original title: The Conundrum of Equality) Cahiers du genre, No. 33, p. 17.

  8. In Quebec, the 1987 Supreme Court decision in Action-Travail des femmes v. Canadian National Railway Company (CN) confirmed the legitimacy of the struggle against “systemic discrimination” against women as well as the company’s being required to take positive-action measures in their favor (CSF 1993: 19; David 1986: 295).

  9. According to the International Labor Office (2003: 15), discrimination in employment and occupation is defined as treating people “differently and less favorably because of certain characteristics, such as their sex, the color of their skin or their religion, political beliefs or social origins, irrespective of their merit or the requirements of the job.”

  10. More precisely, “professional (or hierarchical) segregation” is used to describe the over-representation of women at certain levels of the professional hierarchy and the fact that they do not (or very rarely) reach the highest rungs in the hierarchy, because of the “glass ceiling.” “Horizontal segregation” refers to women’s concentration in certain sectors, which are often undervalued in terms of wages as compared to those dominated by men (Vincent 2013). See also Fortin and Huberman (2002).

  11. For the text of the International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 100, adopted in 1951, see:; see also Council Directive 75/117/EEC of February 10, 1975: or

  12. In a study done with the International Labor Office in 2006, the economist Marie-Thérèse Chicha compared two different types of proactive systems of pay equity. According to her analysis, only the model used in Quebec and Sweden pairs equal opportunity with equal results, requiring employers to do a pay equity audit.

  13. The “Roudy Act” was sponsored by Yvette Roudy, Minister of Women’s Rights from 1981 to 1985.

  14. The name “Génisson Act” refers to a report by Catherine Génisson about professional equality between men and women, which was submitted to the Prime Minister in July, 1999.

  15. See Mercat-Bruns (2011: 117) and following; National Women’s Law Center (2014).

  16. Over twenty states had implemented pay equity programs by 1989 (Hartmann and Aaronson 1994: 69; Watkins 1994: 6).

  17. In the state of Washington, the method used was developed by a firm called Wyatt; in the Minnesota, it was the Hay method.

  18. To get an idea of the contradictions and problems encountered in the various pay equity measures and approaches in these different states, see the analysis of the state of Oregon (Hallock 2000).

  19. The liberal government led by Justin Trudeau, elected in 2015, has, however, promised to present legislation in 2018 requiring employers in federally regulated workplaces to apply pay equity between men and women.

  20. For more information, see: National Association of Women and the Law (; Groupe de travail (2004); England and Gad (2002); Julien Judgment (2004), annexes 11 and 12—CanLII 656 (QC CS).

  21. In Quebec, the notions of dialogue and partnership are well known and well established, particularly when it comes to employment and workforce skills development. All concerned parties are members of the Labour Market Partners Commission, a provincial consultation body that brings together representatives of both business and labor, as well as education, community and governmental organizations (

  22. Companies with 100 or more employees must imperatively establish a pay equity program in four successive steps, as well as setting up a joint steering committee in order to realize the equity audit. In companies with 50–99 employees, employers also have to complete an equity program, but they are not required to set up a committee, unless a union requests it. As for companies with fewer than 50 employees, who tend not to be unionized, employers’ obligations are limited to determining the necessary wage adjustments.

  23. The concept of a job “category” refers to one or more jobs with similar qualifications and responsibilities, as well as the same compensation (hourly wage or pay scale) (art. 54). As for job evaluation, the law leaves the choice of method and approach up to the employer or the pay equity committee. It also spells out certain conditions concerning how to go about comparing predominantly female and male job categories and demonstrating the female and male features of the jobs in question, as well as specifying to four key factors: the qualifications required, the responsibilities accepted, the effort required and the conditions in which the work is performed (articles 56 and following).

  24. Granted, for small companies, the difficulties associated with performing an evaluating audit in a pay equity perspective should not be minimized. Unlike larger firms, which already have job-evaluation systems in place, management in small companies must first become familiar with the technique before being able to apply it. It is worth pointing out that in the early 2000s, the Pay Equity Commission produced various tools to assist them: guides, online and brick-and-mortar training courses, and video presentations.

  25. The 2009 amendments gave a deadline extension to employers who were behind schedule in complying with the original law.

  26. These evaluation plans are described as pay-relativity programs, meaning they are internal equity overviews in which all of a company’s jobs and job categories are evaluated in order to establish greater consistency in classifications and salaries. This is not performed in order to redress discriminatory wage gaps, as in the case of pay equity programs. See Union of Public Employees of Quebec (Attorney General), 2004, CanLII 656 (QC CS).

  27. From the start, Quebec’s law stated that “any employer whose business has 50 or more employees must establish a program that is applicable to the company as a whole” (art. 10). However, at the unions’ request, an article was added stating that, at the request of an accredited organization representing company employees, the employer must establish a pay equity program that is applicable to those employees in particular (…) (art. 11).

  28. I am not referring here to the “distinct programs” aimed at groups of employees that do not include any predominantly female categories, which led to a long judicial battle after a union filed a complaint in 2001. That suit challenged the very notion of a pay equity program, insofar as it is technically impossible to compare predominantly female and male job categories.

  29. Article 19 of the Charter, which places the burden of proof of wage discrimination on women workers, who are required to file a complaint, is still, however, applicable for companies with fewer than 10 employers, who are not concerned by the Pay Equity Act.

  30. Nurses, nurses’ aides and medical technicians obtained the highest level of redress (ISQ 2009a, b: 37). NB: Taking the entire job market into account, the “office” group is the one that enjoyed the largest number of instances of redress.

  31. It is worth noting that in early 2016, the Pay Equity Commission was combined with other labor organisms into a larger “Labour Standards, Pay Equity and Occupational Health and Safety Commission (CNESST) in order to found a multi-purpose labor secretariat.

  32. As far back as the earliest discussions, before the law was enacted, both unions and feminist groups had recommended that employers be obliged to produce a report at the end of the pay equity procedure so that the law’s effective implementation could be assessed. That recommendation was not followed, however. Instead, after the 2009 legislative amendments, a verification program would be developed by the Pay Equity Commission alongside an “Annual Declaration” by the employer, which has been compulsory since 2011. The employer’s “Annual Declaration” form was put on line on March 31, 2011. Four pieces of information are requested: date that the company began operations, number of employees, whether or not pay equity has been achieved and if the maintenance evaluation has been performed, and posting date.

  33. In 2017, consulting agencies were still receiving requests for assistance in performing initial pay equity audits.

  34. See: Alliance du personnel professionnel et technique de la santé et des services sociaux c Québec (Procureur général du Trésor), 2014 QCCS 149; Québec (Procureure générale) c. Alliance du personnel professionnel et technique de la santé et des services sociaux, 2016 QCCA1659.


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Correspondence to Louise Boivin.

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Translated from the French by: Regan Kramer.

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Boivin, L. Quebec’s Pay Equity Act: Significant progress toward professional equality for women?. Fr Polit 16, 297–311 (2018).

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  • Pay Equity Act
  • Equal pay for work of comparable worth
  • Proactive measure
  • Estimate and compare predominantly male and female job categories
  • Redress discriminatory wage gap