When COVID-19 caused a national lockdown in March, millions of Canadians lost their jobs, had their hours cut, or started working from home.
As the provinces began reopening their economies, many of those jobs or hours returned — for men, anyways.
New research shows that women’s participation in the workforce is at a historical low, and that racialized, low-income and immigrant women have been especially hard hit by the pandemic’s economic impacts.
Women lost twice as many jobs or hours as men in the aftermath of March lockdowns due to COVID-19, and have recovered those jobs or hours much more slowly, according to labour force data from Statistics Canada. A July study from the Royal Bank of Canada found that women’s participation in the labour force is at its lowest in 30 years.
And an Ontario Chamber of Commerce report released Sept. 9 on the gendered economic impacts of COVID-19 warns that while the long-term impacts have yet to be seen, the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women could undo years of progress.
Experts say that without extensive government intervention, this large step back could be permanent.
“This is a business issue. It’s an economic issue,” said the report’s author, Claudia Dessanti.
“Decades of progress could be at risk.”
In March alone, women between the ages of 25 and 54 lost more than twice as many jobs as men, according to Statistics Canada data cited by the chamber report — and between April and August, job recovery rose by more than 200,000 for men, but less than 132,000 for women in Ontario.
Women have returned to work much more slowly, Dessanti said, especially women with children.
“We think of ourselves as a very progressive country and we are,” she said. “But we still know that unpaid family care work is just overwhelmingly taken on by women in households.”
The imbalance of family work has always been an issue, said Dessanti, but the COVID-19 crisis brought it to the forefront.
The pandemic has revealed that while many gains have been made for women in the workforce over the past decades, not all women have benefited, said Chanel Grenaway-Mills, a consultant who works with non-profits and the public sector on intersectionality, equity and anti-Black racism.
“The privileged few are now struggling with child care, education … It’s now shedding light on what under-represented or racialized women have been feeling all along,” Grenaway-Mills said.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of care work, much of which is done by women, she said, and she hopes that government and industry will take this into account as they move forward.
It’s also important for businesses and organizations to “look around the table” and see who’s missing, she said.
Without proper support, the participation of women in the workforce could go backwards permanently, Grenaway-Mills said.
Though many workplaces have shifted to remote work, many women have still been forced to leave their jobs to care for children, since the breadwinner with the higher salary — more often the man — is likely the one who will continue working when child care becomes an issue, said Andrea Gunraj, vice-president of public engagement for the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
Marginalized workers have felt these impacts the most, especially since working from home with flexible hours is a privilege only afforded to employees in certain types of jobs, she said.
“This just goes to show that women’s progress in the labour market has been uneven,” said Gunraj. “It’s been more in the area of precarious work and lower-paid work, work that has less hours, that has less benefits.”
She said the new federal temporary caregiving benefit, which provides $ 500 per week for up to 26 weeks for people staying at home to care for dependants such as children or family members with disabilities, is a positive step, but that the EI program needs permanent modernization. As well, she said the public and private sectors need to look to recovery with an intersectional and gender-based lens.
“Now is the time for companies and organizations to think about what they’re going to do for their workers to make sure that they have a worker base when all this is over,” said Gunraj.
In the short term, governments need a plan for a possible second wave of the virus that ensures that women and marginalized people aren’t as unfairly impacted as they were by the March lockdown, Dessanti said.
“If we don’t really get serious about women’s economic recovery in the budgets that are coming out and the strategies that are being developed within government … we really do risk setting the clock back on not just women’s gender equality, but also on economic growth,” she said.
A national survey released Sept. 10 of more than 1,000 Canadian adults by Pollara Strategic Insights in partnership with The Prosperity Project found that a third of women have considered quitting their jobs to take care of their at-home responsibilities during the pandemic. Less than 20 per cent of men considered the same.
The Prosperity Project was founded in May 2020 to research and support women in the economic recovery from COVID-19. Its various initiatives include short- and long-term research into women’s spending power and workplace participation, through an intersectional lens that takes into account racialized and otherwise marginalized women.
Founder Pamela Jeffery said the organization’s national survey confirmed her worst fears: that women are being hit harder by the pandemic than men.
“We thought we had crushed a lot of these stereotypes,” she said, adding it’s clear that more needs to be done to prevent women from leaving the workforce.
Jeffery is calling on governments to take a page out of Quebec’s book and offer flexible, accessible child care to all families.
“Many women, particularly racialized women, don’t have control over their schedules. They don’t have the option of working from home. Therefore they need to have the security of knowing that there is a place that they can take their child or children.”
She said businesses and organizations also need to take a good look at their own workforce and make sure they’re doing everything they can to support women and racialized employees, including creating representation targets.
“Those barriers need to be removed by employers,” she said.
If a large number of dual-income households become single-income households, the economic impact will be widespread, Jeffery said.
“The economic consequences of what we’re seeing through our research could be catastrophic, because of the impact on household spending,” she said.
Katherine Scott, senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, believes a “crisis is brewing,” especially with school restarting.
“The motherhood penalty is a very real thing,” said Scott, referring to the amount of work women take on as mothers.
Scott said women who face additional societal barriers such as women of colour or women with disabilities have been even more deeply hit by the pandemic, and are often the ones on the front lines risking their lives in the health-care sector.
Child care should be made more accessible, as part of the recovery, Scott said, adding it “pays for itself,” putting more tax money into the economy.
She wants to see the federal government provide funding to the provinces and territories to boost their child-care systems, which she believes should move away from being market-driven and into the public sector.
“These types of programs really do generate a series of economic benefits that sort of radiate out from just the individual family to the whole economy,” she said.
The federal government has put up a strong short-term response, said Scott. Now is the time for long-term solutions.