under-representation in Canada's labour market: An analysis of definitions and approaches
How do economists define who is “under-represented” in the labour market? LMIC reviews six approaches.
Defining under-representation is crucial to improve labour market outcomes and growth, especially for groups facing systematic disadvantages and seeking equity in the labour force.
Under-represented groups are commonly discussed in the literature, but statistical and government agencies have not provided a clear definition. The lack of an agreed-upon definition for under-representation leads to inconsistencies in identifying these groups.
The concept of under-representation is closely related to equity in the context of labour market outcomes. Not all under-represented groups are equity-seeking, and policies to increase employment for specific under-represented groups may not address equity and social justice concerns.
LMIC has developed six approaches to define under-representation and has tested whether frequently mentioned under-represented groups fit these definitions.
The method used to define under-representation can significantly impact how groups are classified. Policy-makers should also consider the intersectionality of gender, age, race and immigrant status when identifying under-represented groups.
Policies aimed at addressing the challenges of under-represented groups should consider the unique needs and circumstances of group members to avoid creating insensitive metrics that fail to address specific challenges.
Table of contents
The labour market consequences of the COVID-19 crisis have not fallen equally on all shoulders. Research shows that women, newcomers to Canada and visible minorities experienced greater job losses and slower recoveries (relative to Canadian-born men) due to pandemic-imposed restrictions.
The exposure of these existing vulnerabilities and inequalities has led to renewed calls for action. Policy-makers must address the employment and other labour market challenges that particular demographic groups face in Canada.
Before meaningful work can start, groups or populations that need support must be identified.
Unfortunately, a lack of clarity surrounds the distinct but conceptually similar terms used to describe different population segments. Terms such as “under-represented,” “vulnerable,” and “equity-seeking” are often confused.
To highlight this issue, we have explored six approaches to defining “under-represented” groups in the Canadian labour market and analyzed the impact of each approach on classifying groups. In this work, we distinguish “under-represented” from “equity-seeking” groups (Box 1).
A note on LMIC’s approach to intersectionality
Incorporating an intersectional perspective into our labour market research allows for a more nuanced, inclusive, and comprehensive analysis of the diverse experiences of workers with multiple and intersecting identities.
Data and definitions often divide identities into categories such as sex, gender, age, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexuality, ability, religion, migration status, and geography. These approaches can obscure both systemic inequities and privileges. As a result, LMIC advocates for a shift to new models and frameworks that recognize the complex composition of factors that shape human lives.
This paper on approaches to defining under-representation in Canada’s labour market is an important part of LMIC’s ongoing journey to establish and model intersectional approaches to LMI. It allows us to explore new models for talking about and advocating for groups that are under-represented, equity-seeking, equity-deserving, and which need better, higher-quality representation in the data that informs our national dialogue, policies, programs, and the future of work.
Under-representation: What and who is it about?
The under-representation black box
No standard definition of the term “under-represented” exists. Moreover, the term is not well defined by statistical or government agencies. Due to differing perspectives, there is a growing list of definitions (and measurements) of “under-representation.” We also find inconsistent ideas about the under-represented populations in the Canadian labour market.
For example, the Employment Equity Act identifies only women, Indigenous people, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities as under-represented in the labour force. The act argues that these groups may be denied employment opportunities or benefits for reasons unrelated to ability and aims to correct these inequalities.
However, it does not explicitly define what constitutes under-representation, leading to provincial differences in interpreting the act. For instance, Québec and Nova Scotia include additional groups (ethnic and gender minorities, respectively), while Saskatchewan defines women as under-represented only if they occupy less than 45% of positions in certain “non-traditional” occupations.
With no clear or accepted definition of under-representation, scholars, researchers, employers and policy-makers have identified a number of different groups as under-represented. These include youth, mature workers, gender minorities, newcomers, social assistance recipients, religious minorities, those with limited work experience, those with a criminal record, those who are homeless, survivors of domestic abuse, and those who have experienced periods of involuntary long-term unemployment.
Six approaches to defining under-representation
Figure 1: Six approaches for defining under-representation
1. Relative to their share of the population
2. Relative to the average labour force participation rate or employment rate in Canada
3. Relative to the labour force participation rate or employment rate of the dominant group
4. Relative to the labour force participation rate or employment rate of a comparable group
5. Under-represented in high-earning occupations or positions of power
6. Under-represented in the data
A comprehensive literature review reveals six fundamental approaches to defining under-representation. In this section, we will discuss each approach and distinguish between two types of under-representation: under-represented in the labour force and under-represented in employment.
1. Under-represented in the labour force relative to the share of the working-age population, or under-represented in employment relative to the share of the labour force
This approach defines a group as under-represented in the labour force if its share of the labour force is smaller than its share of the working-age population (aged 15 and above). Similarly, this approach defines a group as under-represented in employment if its share of employment is lower than its share of the labour force. This approach is based on the common-sense understanding that, if no barriers to participation existed, the shares in each case would be relatively equal.
For example, in 2019, women formed 50.6% of the Canadian working-age population, but only 47.3% of the labour force and 47.5% of employment. Following this approach, women would be considered under-represented in the labour force, but not in employment.
Beyond being computationally straightforward, this approach draws on data that are generally easily accessible and granular. However, the approach cannot be used to analyze specific occupations (for example, in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) professions, high-earning positions or management roles), meaning that determinations of under-representation can only be made in reference to the entire labour force or markets.
2. Under-represented relative to the Canadian average
According to this approach, any group with a lower labour force participation rate or employment rate than the corresponding Canadian average can be defined as under-represented.
For example, in 2019, the average Canadian labour force participation rate was 65.6% and the average Canadian employment rate was 61.9%. In the same year, women's average labour force participation rate was 61.3%, and the average employment rate of women was 58%. Given that both metrics are below their Canadian average counterparts, this approach would regard women as under-represented in both the labour force and in employment.
This approach's criticism includes the assumption that the Canadian average is a normative or ideal labour force participation or employment rate. However, it does allow for both comparable metrics and the ability to compare employment under-representation for different professions or occupations.
3. Under-represented relative to “dominant” groups
This approach suggests that any group with lower participation or employment rates relative to a “dominant” group (such as Canadian-born men aged 25 to 54, defined as “core-age”) is under-represented.
For example, in 2019, the labour force participation and employment rates of core-aged, Canadian-born men were 91.2% and 86.8%, respectively. During the same period, women's average labour force participation employment rate rates were 61.3% and 58%, respectively. According to this approach, women are under-represented in both the labour force and in employment.
This definition allows for more customization or specialization than the above approaches that rely on Canadian averages because it allows for selecting the dominant group. However, there is an implicit bias here. Selection of the dominant group is highly subjective, and any conclusions drawn depend almost entirely on the group chosen.
4. Under-represented relative to a comparable group
According to this approach, any group with a lower labour force participation or employment rate than a comparable group is under-represented.
For example, men might be used as a comparison group for women of the same age. In 2019, the labour force participation rate of men aged 15 and older was 70.1%, compared to 61.3% for women aged 15 and older. During the same period, the employment rate of men was 65.8% compared to 58% for women. Using this approach, women aged 15 and older were under-represented in both the labour force and in employment.
Due to its use of two comparable groups, this approach can produce more reliable and internally valid results. Unfortunately, the lack of a comparable group for some populations may prevent the use of this method. Even where a comparable group exists, the selection of each group remains highly discretionary. Additionally, this approach does not allow for the easy comparison of under-representation between and among groups, because it requires a different representative counterpart to be chosen for each analyzed group.
5. Under-represented in high-earning occupations relative to the share of employment
This approach assesses under-representation in particular types of occupations instead of in the labour force as a whole. It posits that a group is under-represented if its share of high-earning occupations is below its share of employment. In this approach, high-earning occupations could easily be replaced by a different type of occupation, such as managerial positions or positions of prestige, and the sample could be reduced to people with similar experience or education.
For example, in 2019, women accounted for 48.6% of high-earning occupations and 47.5% of total employment. According to this approach, women were not under-represented in high-earning occupations.
While this approach can focus the under-representation analysis on occupations deemed ideal, it again has a prescriptive or normative bias; it assumes that high-earning (or managerial or prestigious etc.) occupations are success indicators or goals for each under-represented group. Additionally, deciding what constitutes a high-earning (or prestigious etc.) occupation is subjective and adversely affects inter-researcher reliability.
6. Under-represented in the data
According to this approach, a group is under-represented if there is a lack of labour market information (LMI) that is both specific and granular enough to represent the group’s unique outcomes.
For example, the Labour Force Survey (LFS) contains no information about gender identity, meaning this approach defines groups of individuals with a gender identity distinct from their biological sex as under-represented.
Although this approach is very straightforward and requires no comparable or dominant group selection, issues of self-identification and survey inclusion (including a respondent’s own unwillingness to self-identify), political or religious considerations, and the impracticality of all groups or identities being represented in surveys could lead to the mismeasurement of groups. Additionally, groups can be under-represented in the data for reasons other than under-representation in the labour market.
A clear definition of under-representation must be established to sustain labour force growth and improve the outcomes of under-represented groups. Moreover, it is essential to understand the impact of different approaches to that definition to have a full picture of the Canadian labour force. As shown, the approach determines how different groups are (or are not) determined to be under-represented.
Applying approaches to identifying under-represented groups
This section will assess the value of each approach to understanding under-representation (as discussed above). Three of the four groups identified as under-represented by the Employment Equity Act (women, visible minorities and people with disabilities) will be classified (as under-represented or not under-represented) with each approach. The commonly cited under-represented groups of youth, mature workers, newcomers to Canada and gender minorities will receive the same treatment.
Choosing a suitable threshold requires consideration when comparing shares or rates between groups. The threshold defines what difference between the two groups is deemed large enough to be significant. In this report, for the sake of simplicity, we use two different percentage point (ppt) thresholds: 1 ppt and 5 ppt difference. The threshold selection is highly discretionary and profoundly affects study outcomes; the goal is precisely to demonstrate the relevance of this parameter and how it can assess the depth of under-representation.
Table 1 identifies the groups that are under-represented in both the labour force and in employment based on the five approaches and two thresholds we have selected.
Dark orange shading indicates that the analyzed group's metric is at least 5 ppt below the compared proportion, identifying the group as highly under-represented. Medium orange shading indicates that the metric of the group being analyzed is between 1 and 5 ppt below the compared proportion, identifying the group as modestly under-represented. Light orange indicates that the metric of the analyzed group is less than 1 ppt below or above the compared proportion, so there are no significant differences, and the group is identified as not under-represented.
Table 1: Identification of under-represented groups according to different definition approaches
|Under-represented groups definitions||Women||Visible minorities||People with disabilities||Gender minorities||Youth||Mature workers||Newcomers|
|1||Share of the population / labour force||Labour force participation||Yes, low||No||Yes, low||n/a||No||No||No|
|2||Average LFP/ER in Canada||Labour force participation||Yes, low||No||Yes, high||n/a||No||No||No|
|Employment||Yes, low||No||Yes, high||n/a||Yes, low||No||No|
|3||Average LFP/ER of the dominant group||Labour force participation||Yes, high||Yes, high||Yes, high||n/a||Yes, high||Yes, high||Yes, high|
|Employment||Yes, high||Yes, high||Yes, high||n/a||Yes, high||Yes, high||Yes, high|
|4||Average LFP/ER of a comparable group||Labour force participation||Yes, high||No||Yes, high||n/a||Yes, high||Yes, high||Yes, high|
|Employment||Yes, high||No||Yes, high||n/a||Yes, high||Yes, high||Yes, high|
|5||Employment in high-earning occupations||Employment||No||n/a||n/a||n/a||Yes, high||Yes, low||No|
- This table was populated using data from the LFS 2017, 2019 and 2022, depending on the under-represented group considered.
- In this table, the (potentially) under-represented groups are defined as follows: women aged 15+ (using the LFS 2019), visible minorities aged 15+ (using the LFS of March 2022), people with disabilities aged 25–64 (using the Canadian Survey on Disability 2017), youth aged 15–24 (using the LFS 2019), mature workers aged 55–64 (using the LFS 2019), newcomers/recent immigrants aged 15+ who have landed in Canada less than or equal to 5 years ago (using the LFS 2019).
- The third approach's dominant group comprises Canadian-born men aged 25–54.
- The choices of comparable groups in the fourth approach are men aged 15+ for women (using the LFS 2019), non-visible minority people aged 15+ for visible minorities (using the LFS of March 2022), able persons aged 25–64 for people with disabilities (using the Canadian Survey on Disability 2017), persons aged 25–29 for youth (using the LFS 2019), persons aged 45–54 for mature workers (using the LFS 2019), recent immigrants who have landed between five and 10 years for newcomers (using the LFS 2019).
- In the fifth approach, high-earning occupations are defined as those above the 75th percentile of the hourly wage distribution by NOC-2 digits.
As illustrated, each of the six approaches identifies a different set of under-represented groups. For instance, the first approach identifies only women and people with disabilities as under-represented in the labour force. In contrast, the third approach determines that each of the six groups are under-represented in both the labour force and in employment.
Table 1 helps us to distinguish the degree and type of under-representation between different groups. We see that women and people with disabilities are most often defined as under-represented in both the labour force and employment. In contrast, visible minorities, mature workers and newcomers are less often defined as under-represented.
In fact, over the first five approaches and looking at under-representation in both the labour force and employment, women are identified as under-represented in 77.8% of cases and people with disabilities in 87.5% of cases. However, the level of under-representation is also an important parameter to consider. People with disabilities and youth are the groups with the highest under-representation, with 75% and 55.6% of the approaches identifying them as highly under-represented, respectively. Finally, a distinction between labour force and employment under-representation is important to assess the causes and design policies that address those causes.
These groups may contain subgroups with significantly different labour force characteristics and outcomes. For example, while the employment rate of visible minorities overall was 64.7% in 2019, this group contains several subgroups with high variability in employment rates: people from Filipino (75.5%), Latin American (68.6%) and South Asian backgrounds (66.9%) had the highest employment rates among the visible minority groups, while people from Chinese (58.1%), Japanese (58.3%) and west Asian backgrounds (59%) had significantly lower employment rates. Furthermore, one group could be defined as under-represented in a certain province, but not another. Therefore, the geographical areas, dates and other parameters must also be considered and analyzed when identifying under-represented groups.
The choice of threshold matters to show the level of the under-representation. With the threshold of 5 ppt, women aren’t defined as under-represented using the first or second approach, while people with disabilities are highly under-represented according to several approaches. The influence of different thresholds must be clearly understood when identifying under-represented groups.
Because of data limitations, we are unable to verify the under-representation criteria for the gender minorities group. Therefore, gender minorities is the only group defined as under-represented using the sixth approach, because there is a lack of labour market outcome data. Additionally, data availability and granularity of other indicators, such as employment by occupation, pose challenges for evaluating the visible minority and people with disability groups.
The Way Forward
Identifying under-represented groups is crucial for policy-makers to address the employment and labour market challenges faced by specific demographic groups in Canada that came to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there is no agreed-upon definition of under-representation. The absence of such a definition leads to confusion and inconsistencies in identifying these groups. The objective of this report is not to definitively define under-represented groups in the labour market, but rather to emphasize the importance of choosing a consistent definition or approach.
We explored six approaches for identifying under-represented groups and analyzed their impact on group membership. Our findings show that the method used to define under-representation is critical because it can significantly affect the results. Even after selecting an approach, there may still be various discretionary decisions to be made, and these can influence the final list of under-represented groups.
Additionally, we must consider the intersectionality of gender, age, race and immigrant status when exploring the outcomes of under-represented groups. One under-represented group may contain several subgroups with different characteristics that should be considered when designing policies to address specific challenges. To avoid creating insensitive metrics that fail to address specific challenges, policy-makers should consider the unique needs and circumstances of group members when identifying under-represented groups.
While the focus is often on under-represented groups, over-represented or under-represented groups that are not systematically disadvantaged are rarely in the spotlight. Research looking into the reasons why some groups have enjoyed systematically enhanced access to employment opportunities versus others could be beneficial for the overall discussion. Likewise, understanding the mechanisms behind the under-representation of some groups that are not disadvantaged could be valuable.
This LMI Insight Report was prepared by Anne-Lore Fraikin of LMIC. We would like to thank Liz Betsis for her significant contribution and Behnoush Amery for her guidance and insights. We would also thank Suzanne Spiteri for her feedback and constructive comments. For more information about this report, please contact Anne-Lore Fraikin, Research Lead, at email@example.com.
How to cite this report
Labour Market Information Council (2023). Understanding Under-Representation in Canada's Labour Market: An Analysis of Definitions and Approaches. Ottawa: LMIC.
Table 2: Formula and input data for Table 1
|Women||Visible Minorities||People with disabilities||Gender minorities||Youth||Mature workers||Newcomers|
|Share of people||a. Share of population||Number of individuals in reference group
Total population aged 15+
|b. Share of labour force||Number of individuals in reference group on the labour force
Total number individuals in the labour force aged 15+
|c. Share of employment||Number of individuals in reference group employed
Total number individuals employed aged 15+
|d. Share of employment in high earning occupations||Ref. group members employed in high earning occupations
Total employed in high earning occupations
|Labour force participation rates||e. Reference group||Employed or unemployed in ref. group
Total # in the reference group aged 15 and over
|f. Canada||Employed or unemployed in Canada
Total # in the Canada
|g. Dominant group||Employed or unemployed in dominant group
Total # in dominant group
|h. Comparable group||Employed or unemployed in comparable group
Total # in comparable group
|Employment rates||i. Reference group||Employed in ref. group
Population aged 15 and over
|j. Canada||Employed in Canada
Population aged 15 and over
|k. Dominant group||Employed in dominant group
Population aged 15 and over
|l. Comparable group||Employed in comparable group
Population aged 15 and over
Table 3: Differences between groups according to definitions
|Differences between groups||Women||Visible minorities||People with disabilities||Gender minorities||Youth||Mature workers||Newcomers|
|Definition 1||Underrepresented in the labour force||If b - a < 0||-3.3%||2.2%||-4.0%||n/a||-0.2%||0.1%||0.3%|
|Underrepresented in employment||If c - b < 0||0.2%||-0.3%||-0.4%||n/a||-0.8%||0.1%||-0.1%|
|Definition 2||Underrepresented on the labour force||If e - f < 0||-4.3%||5.4%||-16.1%||n/a||-0.7%||0.1%||5.3%|
|Underrepresented in employment||If I - j < 0||-3.9%||4.4%||-16.7%||n/a||-4.1%||0.3%||2.3%|
|Definition 3||Underrepresented on the labour force||If e - g < 0||-29.9%||-21.6%||-26.3%||n/a||-26.3%||-25.5%||-20.3%|
|Underrepresented in employment||If I - k < 0||-28.8%||-21.0%||-26.5%||n/a||-29.0%||-24.6%||-22.6%|
|Definition 4||Underrepresented on the labour force||If e - h < 0||-8.8%||7.3%||-20.1%||n/a||-21.6%||-21.4%||-5.3%|
|Underrepresented in employment||If i - l < 0||-7.8%||5.9%||-20.8%||n/a||-23.3%||-21.4%||-7.0%|
|Definition 5||Underrepresented in employment||If d - c < 0||1.1%||n/a||n/a||n/a||-9.6%||-1.1%||3.8%|