By now, almost everyone in Alberta knows that higher education in this province is under the gun. In March, despite vocal opposition from Albertans, Minister for Education and Advanced Enterprise Thomas Lukaszuk announced a cut of $147 million to the provincial budget for postsecondary education, knocking out years of progress in our universities and colleges. What many may not realize, however, is that women will be the main victims of Lukaszuk’s slashing. Here’s how it works.
Alberta has Canada’s biggest wage gap between men and women. In terms of hourly wages, men in Alberta earn an astonishing $6.04 per hour more than women (compared with a national gap of $3.57, and a gap of only $3.73 next door in Saskatchewan).  This gap is the result of Alberta’s economic tilt towards oil and gas extraction, which yields thousands of high-paying jobs at all skill levels, in occupations dominated by men. In Edmonton alone, the “trades, transport and equipment operations” sector – Statistics Canada’s term for all the jobs that service oil and gas extraction – is 93% male.  This one sector accounts for one third of all male workers, but only 3% of female workers. 
One of the few forces which offset the gender-skew of the oil and gas economy is postsecondary education. In Alberta, as elsewhere in Canada, the returns to higher education are higher for women than for men, when measured in annual earnings. Across Canada, women with no education beyond high school earn only 67 cents for every dollar their similarly-uneducated male peers earn.  When women have a bachelor’s degree, diploma or certificate, however, they earn 89 cents for every dollar a man with a similar education earns; and when women get master’s or doctoral-level degrees, their earnings rise to 96 cents on the male dollar.  Education thus is a powerful driver of women’s equality, and nowhere is it more important than in Alberta, where it partially counterbalances the powerful advantage that the resource economy gives to men.
And so, when higher education gets the axe, the financial implications for women are worse than for men. The economic hit to Alberta’s women is made even painful by the specific program cuts which have been announced by colleges and universities. With few exceptions, the programmes bearing the brunt of the budget cuts are ones in which the majority of students are female. The University of Calgary has cut 200 spaces in its arts programs. Red Deer College has eliminated its programmes in early learning and child care, hospitality and tourism, and virtual assistance (a form of home-based administrative support). Mount Royal University has suspended diplomas in performance, theatre arts and disability studies, as well as certificates in aging studies and neonatal nursing. Medicine Hat College has stopped the intake to its nursing program. Lethbridge College has halted its marketing and design programme, as well as its office administration offerings. Lakeland College will no longer admit students to study nursing, emergency services, office administration of events management. And the list goes on, with new hits on the programmes that have supported working women being announced every day.
Some may argue that the programmes which are being eliminated don’t lead to the big-money resource economy jobs that have come to characterize the Albertan dream. Why be a nurse, or an early childhood educator, or a musician, when you could scramble for the spots that train you to become a petroleum technician, an energy geologist, or whatever the industry dictates is needed this year? In an ideal world, perhaps these opportunities would be distributed equally between men and women. But in the real world, for many good reasons, women have sought to better their lives not only through “nontraditional” resource economy jobs but also through improving their education in the fields which have historically been most hospitable to women. When the doors to these fields slam shut, women will be left in the cold, and their economic disadvantage will increase.
Alberta politics is often not dissimilar from what happens south of the border. In 2012, American voters saw a flurry of policy statements and proposals which would have severely disadvantaged women relative to men, from interference with women’s health care to attacks on equal pay. What the political pundits dubbed the “war on women” was ended with a decisive loss for the hapless Republican candidates who put forward these ideas, thanks in large part to voters who insisted that women’s equality was not a political football (or hockey puck, to Canadianize the metaphor a bit).
We can do the same in Alberta. We can identify the education cuts for what they are – attacks which will intensify the already extreme disparity between the genders in Alberta. We can defend postsecondary education as a means to bring about greater social equality and economic security for both men and women. And we can remember what kind of province we want when the next election rolls around.
Amy Kaler, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Alberta
Lise Gotell, Chair, Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Alberta
Sara Dorow, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Alberta
Stephanie Hayman, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Alberta