Aboriginal women do better by degrees

TheGlobeandMail.com – National – University graduates earn more than non-aboriginal women with same education
April 8, 2010.   Joe Friesen

The argument for pursuing higher education couldn’t be clearer: Aboriginal women with a university degree earn more, on average, than their non-aboriginal counterparts, according to a new study.

Despite grim statistics that show a stubborn earnings gap of 30 per cent between aboriginal people and other Canadians, aboriginal women who go to university are actually enjoying a kind of advantage – and one not shared by aboriginal men. An aboriginal woman with a bachelor’s degree earns $2,471 a year more than a non-aboriginal woman with the same level of education. That gap grows to $4,521 a year for those with a master’s degree, according to the study.

The trend is different among aboriginal men. Even those with a bachelor’s degree earn $3,667 less than other Canadians educated to the same level. But among young aboriginal men, those aged 25 to 44 with a university degree, the trend is closer to equality.

Jaimie Lickers, a third-year lawyer with Blakes, a large, national firm, is one of a growing number of young aboriginal women to reap the benefits of higher education.

Ms. Lickers, a 28-year-old who grew up on the Six Nations reserve south of Hamilton, will argue her first case before the Ontario Court of Appeal this morning.

She is the first person in her family to go to university, and last week bought her first house. A graduate of Queen’s, she was one of only two aboriginal women in her high-school graduating class to go directly to university. She said she’s accustomed to taking on more responsibility than normally afforded someone of her age and experience.

“When I was growing up, I just knew that I wanted a different sort of life for myself. I knew that I wasn’t going to be happy in a small, rural community working a nine-to-five job that didn’t exercise my intellectual abilities,” she said. “No one ever had to put pressure on me to do well. My mother always says I put enough pressure on myself for the both of us. I just was always driven to succeed and when I had a goal in sight, the only thing that mattered to me was attaining it.”

Daniel Wilson, co-author of the study, which is being released Thursday, said there are three hypotheses that could explain the trend. The first is that aboriginal women tend to enter university later in life, by an average of two to three years. As a result, they are often more focused once they begin their studies, Mr. Wilson said. They also tend to enter the health, education and social-service sectors, where jobs are more often unionized and pay relatively high salaries. Affirmative action, particularly in the public sector, may also be playing a role, Mr. Wilson said.

“To get to the level of a university degree, you have to be an overachiever and so you see … that people in oppressed societies who actually succeed are really the crème de la crème,” Mr. Wilson said. “They’re exceptional. So what you may be seeing is the effect of exception.”

Ms. Lickers also credits generous scholarship and support programs from her band and the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation with helping her navigate her way through university successfully.

“My education was fully funded. I received a living allowance every month. I received a book allowance every semester and my tuition was paid, both through undergrad and law school. It wouldn’t have been possible for me to be here without that,” she said.

The study, which was conducted by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, also shows that aboriginal women are narrowing the wage gap with aboriginal men, a trend that’s not occurring in the broader Canadian population. Part of the reason is aboriginal women are attending university in greater numbers. About 14 per cent of aboriginal women have a university degree, compared to 28 per cent of non-aboriginal women. Among aboriginal men, eight per cent have a university degree, less than a third the 25-per-cent figure for the non-aboriginal population, according to the study.

The median income for aboriginal people in 2006 was $18,962, compared to $27,097 for other Canadians, Mr. Wilson said. At the current rate, it would take 63 years, or slightly more than three generations, for aboriginal people to achieve income equality with other Canadians.

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