12 times more women than men left the workforce during the pandemic. Why? Kids

COVID-19 created a crisis of care — and working mothers bore the burden

July 28, 2021

The day the frustrated fifth-grader who couldn’t calculate the radius of a circle burst into a crucial Zoom meeting with the boss. The day they arrived to pick up the toddler at the home of a friend-of-a-friend who was the only emergency child care option — and encountered an unmasked stranger, hanging out on the sofa in what was supposed to be a ‘bubble.’ Suspecting the ninth grader in the next room was playing Overwatch all day on the laptop, but unable to do much about it without sacrificing her own work. Cancelling a presentation because a lonely, angry child who missed her teachers and her friends and her sense of security had started to cry and just couldn’t stop.

Plenty of fathers had these moments, too, of course, but one of the many things that COVID-19 laid bare was how little fundamental assumptions about gender and care work had changed by March of 2020. Before the pandemic, Canadian women already reported spending 1.5 hours more each day on domestic and caregiving tasks than men. Then, in the great majority of households where the pandemic created a crisis about care for children or elders, it fell to women to make a plan. It was women who took on the bulk of the burden, it was women who tried to juggle online school or baby care with a job, or reduced their hours, or stepped away entirely from work.

In the year from February 2020, 12 times as many women as men stopped working because of child-care responsibilities.

A headshot of Amy Kleinman

Amy Lazar Kleiman

My younger child started preschool in January 2020, and that was my moment: I had 10 whole hours a week to build a business. I started going to a co-working space and I started drumming up clients pretty quickly. Before I had my kids, I was a manager of corporate communications and I’m good at writing marketing copy. Well, of course, my kid was in preschool for one hot minute before everything shut down. And suddenly I had two jobs, two totally exhausting jobs: I was trying to build a business and be an entrepreneur, and I had two kids at home who I was also supposed to be teaching.

These women lost income, obviously; many also lost medical benefits, including access to costly mental health support that they or family members needed more than ever. And they lost other employment related benefits such as Merritt’s parental leave.

A headshot of Anne Merritt

Anne Merritt

I was just not working for a few months, and then in the fall I picked up a couple of contracts. Then I lost the salary top-up for the mat leave. I didn’t think I was going to get EI either, but then the federal government lowered the number of hours required, presumably because so many people were in this position. But I was down about $ 15,000.”

Women who stepped away from paid work experienced a career interruption that history shows has a lifelong impact on earnings and retirement income. But they lost something else, too: as women literally went back into the kitchen, there was a decline in their participation in social, civic and political life (such as it was in the pandemic), the long-term effect of which will take time to become clear.

And as the stories of Merritt, Tucker and Lazar Kleiman make clear, the pandemic extracted a price in women’s well-being. One year into the COVID crisis, a large study reported in the journal Lancet Psychiatry found that the pandemic had increased depression and anxiety in women broadly — researchers went back to women they had followed over five years after a longitudinal pregnancy study and found a new, sharp drop in mental health since the onset of the pandemic. And they found it was worst for women who had lost income, were struggling to obtain child care or trying to manage home-schooling while working.

Percentage of Parents experiencing mental health challenges

A chart showing that in a survey mothers reported more stress, anxiety and depression than fathers
SOURCE: Lancet Psychiatry

A headshot of Rebecca Tucker

Rebecca Tucker

The whole spring and summer was hard on my son and me both: I was stressed and unsure and we were both on edge quite a bit.”

A headshot of Amy Kleinman

Amy Lazar Kleiman

We haven’t put ourselves first — ever, probably, but definitely not in the last year and our careers have suffered and our dreams and our hopes and all that stuff. And we’re just hanging on, we’re all like, hanging on. I have zero time and zero energy. There’s no energy left for the extra, like the volunteer stuff that I used to really enjoy.”

March 2020

In the first weeks of the pandemic, in many households with children, one or both parents were abruptly out of work.

In others, parents worked in fields deemed essential and had to keep going to work. And in roughly half of families, parents’ employment pivoted remarkably quickly to work-from home. Yet schools and daycares were closed. The parents suddenly working remotely, and those who were still expected to show up at work, were stuck. Some reduced their hours; or stopped working and tried to find income assistance such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

Through the first year, the Canadian government threw an arsenal of policy measures, and a blizzard of money, at its effort to blunt the worst impacts of the pandemic. The CERB made up for lost income; the Canada Emergency Wage Support helped businesses keep workers employed; there were emergency funds for lobster fishers and grain farmers; money to repurpose hotels to house homeless people, and to put COVID isolation units in remote Indigenous communities.

A headshot of Jennifer Robson

“It’s a classic failure of public administration: no one is in charge, and families feel they are on their own”

Jennifer Robson

Public policy specialist at Carleton University

But for this fault line in the crisis, the one that may have been the most widely shared, for this critical question of how people could continue to work but also care for children, there was no Canada Emergency anything. There was just … figure it out for yourself.

“It’s a classic failure of public administration: no one is in charge, and families feel they are on their own,” said Jennifer Robson, a public policy specialist at Carleton University in Ottawa. (She did this interview while also supervising her daughter doing Grade 5 work on Google Meet).

Employment among women with toddlers or school-aged children fell 7 per cent between February and May compared to a decline of 4 per cent among fathers of children the same age. Employment for single mothers with a toddler or school-aged child was down 12 per cent from February to June (compared to a 7 per cent decline among single fathers).

% Change in employment by group (Feb-May)

A chart showing % Change in employment by group (Feb-May). Fathers: -5.4%, Mothers: -6.8%, Single mothers: -21.2%

In June, despite more mothers and fathers returning to work, the divergence persisted, with employment levels for fathers returning to near pre-crisis levels while levels for mothers still hovered 3 per cent below February employment. Moreover, mothers whose youngest child was between the ages of 6 and 17 continued to experience a 5 per-cent gap from fathers with children of the same age.

Women lost more jobs than men in the first months of the pandemic, as the sectors such as retail and hospitality where they predominated shut down. But they also regained fewer jobs when reopenings began, and many left the labour force all together. One group, in particular, made a mass movement to the exit: women 35 to 39. By October, roughly half of the women in this age cohort who had lost their jobs in the first months of the pandemic were no longer searching for work.

Why? Kids.

A headshot of Jim Stanford

“Women’s participation declined more than men’s, and it was really concentrated in the parents of young kids”

Jim Stanford

Economist at the Centre for Future Work

In replies to the Statistics Canada monthly Labour Force Survey, and other research, women said the answer was overwhelmingly the need to care for children. Women with children under the age of six made up 41 per cent of the labour force in February, but accounted for two-thirds of the group who opted out of work or looking for it. “Women’s participation declined more than men’s, and it was really concentrated in the parents of young kids, said Jim Stanford, an economist who heads the Centre for Future Work. The caregiving demand, he said, “chased the parenting-age women right out of the labour market. The gap was already bad and it got a lot worse.”

The first opportunity that the provincial and federal governments had to intervene concerned schools and daycares: had these been put at the centre of the COVID response, as they were in countries such as Denmark, they might have reopened safely in the first weeks of the pandemic. That would have required doing a lot of things differently, including, likely, closing almost everything else to keep community transmission of the virus at the lowest possible level. It would have meant implementing routine rapid testing at schools, and swift investment in hiring and infrastructure to keep class sizes small so children were kept in small cohorts. That, of course, didn’t happen.

A headshot of Anne Merritt

Anne Merritt

How, how is every administrator not diverted to addressing this? What’s more important? If you had an imperfect plan I think the public perception would be a little more welcoming. But there’s no plan. How is there not a commission designated in each city or school board to think of a back-to-school plan? I mean, I know why. Because in March when everyone moved home, the women who were saying, ‘This is a whole lot of work for us, the kids are at home, my professional life is suffering’ — it took the world at large a very long time to take that seriously — that the economy, the labour force of Canada as a whole is compromised, if the women are this tired.

A headshot of Rebecca Tucker

Rebecca Tucker

As soon as the pandemic started, I saw it coming. My son was 10. So he can’t stay on his own. I was on track to graduate in 2020, and I have to finish, because I can’t get loans any more. But now I can’t work on my dissertation — my son is home. He’s by himself, which no kid handles well: it’s boring and long. So I’m just not working. When I found out I matched for residency in Ottawa, right away I thought, this isn’t going to go well. If the schools don’t open, or if they open and close again — I don’t have any support system there. I can’t afford to pay for a caregiver on what I get paid as a resident. I couldn’t do it, not knowing what I would do if school was shut.

Children across the country were out of school intermittently — and to varying degrees — throughout the 15 months since March 16, 2020. B.C. sent kids back to school that June and mostly kept them there the following school year. In Ontario, children in Toronto were online for more than half the year, not counting disruptions for individual COVID exposures. “There has been limited effort to keep child care from closing,” said Robson. “They didn’t do the things to make it functional. ‘Open’ school is still wildly disruptive for families, with the testing and the isolating, it’s super stressful, and that’s harder for low-wage families. Uncertainty has an economic cost.”

A headshot of Amy Kleinman

Amy Lazar Kleiman

Summer felt normal but then it was like — are the kids going to go school? In Ontario, every month or two things switch on us, so the kids are either in physical school, or they’re not; we’ve got a week or two of camp, or we don’t. Even when they’re in virtual school, you are completely their TA, you’re sharpening their pencils, if not actually teaching them the lesson.

A headshot of Rebecca Tucker

Rebecca Tucker

I’m not making progress on my dissertation, that’s for sure. And in order to get a job and start earning money, I have to have that done. My son is awake until 10:30 p.m., I’m up at 6:30 a.m. — there aren’t enough hours. And it’s not even just that writing it after work is hard, but it’s the constant, ‘Are schools going to be open? Is this the thing that will mean I can’t go to work this week?’ It’s exhausting.

Even when schools and daycares were open, uncertainty about what was to come prompted some families to decide a parent was going to have to stop working.

In the wildly unpredictable days of the early pandemic, most households made this decision on brutally pragmatic terms: who earns more?

A headshot of Jennifer Robson

“Parents said, ‘we have to stay where the money is’.”

Jennifer Robson

Public policy specialist at Carleton University

Almost 80 per cent of Canadian households with children have two working adults. But in nearly three-quarters of those households, if they are a heterosexual couple, male partners earn more, a gap that persists because women continue to take the bulk of parental leaves, losing out on promotions and raises, and because of the gender pay gap. And so in the great majority of households where one person stopped working, it was the woman. More women had the decision made for them, of course, because they lost more jobs than men did, but in other families, the decision was driven by cold financial reality.

In Robson’s characterization, “Parents said, ‘we have to stay where the money is’.”

A headshot of Amy Kleinman

Amy Lazar Kleiman

It was clear that if someone was going to step away from work it would be me: my husband is a director of software engineering, he’s the main breadwinner, that’s how we have our bills set up. So it was clear it was going to be me who took this on. Every household has this discussion, ‘OK, this next year is going to be totally messed up, who can step away from their job?’ And of course with the pay wage gap, of course it’s going to be women most of the time. My husband blocks off noon to 1 p.m. every day and takes the kids outside, so I get that time — but it’s hard, as a writer. You can’t just be creative on a schedule.

When a household makes these decisions, two things are coming into direct conflict, explained Tammy Schirle, a professor of economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. who has been studying how the pandemic is playing out differently for men and for women. “When these decisions are made in households, it’s predominantly women stepping away from work, it’s Mom bearing the cost. And that’s an interesting conflict: it’s in the household interest but not the individual woman’s interest.”

September 2020

In September, the problem spurred a landmark policy intervention: the federal government created the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit (CRCB).

The benefit paid $ 500 a week before taxes for every weeklong period a person had to leave work to care for a child under 12 or a family member needing supervision, because of COVID: because they were sick, or because a school was closed, for example. It was the first time that the government had designed income support specifically recognizing that caregiving has an economic cost. Applications for the new benefit told the story of who needed the help: By March, more women than men had applied for the CRCB in every province — and in Ontario and Alberta, the two provinces with the greatest uncertainty about school, the number of women applying was more than twice the number of men.

A headshot of Rebecca Tucker

Rebecca Tucker

My supervisor has been amazing; she and another supportive faculty member tried to find me a new residency and in the meantime she was able to hire me on a project. A few individuals worked really hard to make this possible. But the system didn’t, and that’s something we all have to talk about: your success can’t depend on having the right people in your corner. From June to December I was working but not knowing if I was going to be able to do a residency. Then in December I started a residency in the Annapolis Valley, where I’m from. We’re near my parents. But they have underlying conditions and they’re at high risk for COVID complications so it’s hard for them to help with my son. But sometimes that’s the only option we have. I’m getting paid $ 35,000. I get no child support from his father. Without COVID, my son would have been doing after-school clubs and sports, and I wouldn’t be paying for child care. There’s one place in this town that takes kids his age, and it’s $ 300 a month. But I can’t get a student line of credit to cover child care, because I already used that up in other years just to pay the rent.”

April 2021

Finally in April, more than one year into the pandemic, came a policy response that spoke specifically to the impact that caregiving had had on women’s working lives.

A headshot of Rebecca Tucker

Rebecca Tucker

We were doing okay until schools closed down again. Now we’re just surviving — that’s the goal. We went back into lockdown in May and I have to do the counselling sessions I do for my residency from home. I put a giant red paper on the door and partially block it with a chair to help my son remember not to come in. We’ll see how long that system lasts. I’m relying on that and bribery.”

“Universal, accessible, high-quality child care allows people with depressed and precarious wages to survive in the workforce,”

Amanda Watson

Maternal labour and the politics of families expert at Simon Fraser University

That has an economic cost overall, as well as a social one, said Amanda Watson, an expert on maternal labour and the politics of families at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver; accelerating child-care access will be key not just for economic recovery, but to start the shift back toward a more equitable balance of caregiving, and with it, the possibility of a fuller life for women. It’s true for middle class women such as Merritt and Lazar-Kleiman, and it’s particularly true of those who have been more vulnerable through the pandemic.

“Universal, accessible, high-quality child care allows people with depressed and precarious wages to survive in the workforce,” said Watson. “This is it. This is the thing that will make the difference. And understanding that fact as a country is what would allow us to prioritize this service in future crises.”

A headshot of Rebecca Tucker

Rebecca Tucker

I worked four piecemeal jobs to pay the bills. I kept missing out on grants, because I didn’t have time to write that extra paper or be on a committee. There’s nowhere to write on the form, under leadership, ‘I’m raising a functional human.’ Now I’m going to be paying fees longer, and this is the last year I can get interest relief for my loans. That adds up fast. I have $ 130,000 in debt from school. My school stipend was $ 10,000 a year, after tuition, for the two of us to live on, so I had to take on debt. I’m facing delaying graduation by at least a year, if not more. There’s a special COVID grant for students with dependents, but I can’t get it because I’ve maxed out the years I can get student loans — because it took me longer because I have a kid. I don’t think anyone thought that through.”

The national child-care system, if it wins provincial support and begins to be built, will be an immediate, tangible step toward equity that comes out of the pandemic. As schools reopen, some women, such as Amy Lazar Kleiman, will be able to return to work. But they will enter a landscape where women’s presence and participation has declined noticeably, to unknown effect. Other women, such as Anne Merritt, will likely take longer to be able to rebuild their professional lives; their pandemic setback will endure.

A headshot of Jennifer Robson

“We won’t know for some time what was lost by women being set back this way.”

Jennifer Robson

Public policy specialist at Carleton University

And all of them will have a more personal negotiation to make, about how the income loss, the exhaustion and stress, the narrowed horizons — how all of these, change how they see themselves.

“Women’s identity and social value is tied up with being actively employed and in the workforce,” Robson said. “We won’t know for some time what was lost by women being set back this way.”

A smiling woman sittin in a park holding her baby up above her head. Her other baby rests at her legs.

Anne Merritt with her twins, who were born in December. Professional setbacks brought on by the pandemic and the high cost of child care have made Merritt’s return to work more challenging.Amber Bracken for the Toronto Star

I was very, very happy in my job. I had a lot of professional opportunities in my role. And I really liked the team I worked with. But assuming the child care costs remain what they are, and my work situation remains unpredictable — my going back to work may have to be reconsidered. I may not go back to the workforce or I may have to look for part-time work and balance child-minding for three toddlers, which is something I hadn’t envisioned before. And then there might be professional setbacks there that I hadn’t anticipated, because one year out of the workforce for mat leave is one thing, but several years is more worrisome. But it wouldn’t make sense for my husband to be the one to leave his job, because he’d be leaving a job and I’d be looking for one. And now that my field has gone online, I’m competing with all of Canada.

A woman sitting on the couch with her young boy

Rebecca Tucker and her son. Tucker has had to delay graduation at least one year and taken on more student debt during the pandemic. Steve McKinley/Toronto Star

I haven’t been able to work on my dissertation: I could have been defending it now and instead I’m not even close. I will be lucky to be done next December. It’s hard emotionally — it’s hard to watch people defend their theses and go off to internships and think, maybe I’ll get there some day.”

A woman on the computer smiles as a young boy and girl whiz by in the forground

Amy Lazar Kleiman with her kids outside their home in Toronto. She says it has been difficult to balance childcare and online school with running her business.Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star

The kids really, really need me and I’m trying to keep this business, and it comes second, it comes fifth. My career goals, my job, my wanting to start a business and be an entrepreneur and put all of my creative energy into it. And there’s no public policy that makes this any easier for women at all. There is a huge portion of the economy that hinges on women doing this work – it’s been blatantly obvious over the last year that their role is seen as being back in the home. And we just basically were put back 50 years.

About the Series
What COVID Reveals is the 2020-21 Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy series on the COVID-19 crisis and inequality.

The Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy awards a seasoned Canadian journalist the opportunity to pursue a year-long investigation into a current policy issue. The fellowship is a collaborative project of the Atkinson Foundation, the Honderich family, and the Toronto Star.

In What Covid Reveals, award-winning journalist Stephanie Nolen tells the stories of people in Canada who were vulnerable to COVID-19, or made newly vulnerable by the virus, and how public policy shaped their pandemic experience. Nolen followed working women, migrant workers and asylum seekers, and those who had no place to “just stay home” as the virus surged. Through the story of their pandemic year, she charts what COVID showed us, and what we’ve chosen to do about it.

Read the full series at thestar.com/whatcovidreveals