Over the last year, we have seen unprecedented disruption to a hard-fought, slow, but ultimately positive trajectory of economic progress and equality for women and girls. The past year exposed and deepened cracks in the foundation upon which women have had to build their professional and educational successes.
The “she-cession” — the disproportionate effect of the economic crisis triggered by COVID-19 on women’s employment — has deepened those cracks to a crisis point. It has been one year since the pandemic struck, but it did not take that long for its effects to hit women harder than men. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, almost immediately, women accounted for 63 per cent of the one million jobs lost as of March 2020. As we mourn the losses of the last year this month, the participation of women in the labour force sits at a 20-year low.
These statistics are hard to ignore and they only get worse for women of colour. The federal government has launched a Task Force on Women in the Economy to inform a feminist recovery in the upcoming budget. Women will be front and centre at the table advising Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland on creating jobs and growth through what has been described as a feminist and intersectional lens.
“Build Back Better” may have been a slogan of U.S. President Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, but there are echoes of a similar sentiment here at home. Indeed, variations of this slogan can be heard in capitals the world over. If we are going to build back, we must demand that doing it better means improving the lot of women so that everyone can prosper.
Women are overrepresented in industries most restricted by the pandemic: retail, hospitality and the caregiving professions.
Support should be directed to educational and workforce development programs that equip women to gain new hard (technical) and soft (durable) skills that will set them up to move fluidly through changing industries. These programs must address systemic barriers, thereby enabling resilient systems of learning that surpass what has existed previously.
To support this mission and to make sure education is central to a women-centred budget process, we recommend:
- Ensuring that under-represented voices have influence with the task force.
Young women and women of colour have been disproportionately affected by the current crisis, but little attention has been given to their experiences in the pandemic response. The task force has assembled an impressive team from across sectors, but still lacks youth representation or significant representation from grassroots communities. The task force needs to ensure there are pathways available to additional stakeholders so that recommendations take an intersectional lens and reflect diverse women’s experiences in the pandemic.
- Implementing education programs specifically tailored to the needs of young and BIPOC women.
Re-skilling programs flexible enough to reach as many learners as possible are the foundation of a resilient workforce. We must implement and support re-skilling programs that address the specific needs of BIPOC and young women. Programs need to go beyond technical or vocation training to holistically address the systemic barriers such as child-care services and tackling the gendered pay gap. The programs must also be an investment in a breadth of social and emotional skills that will give young women the confidence, autonomy and skills essential to navigate an ever-changing economy.
These programs should be available through online learning platforms to reach safely as many learners as possible, while instilling critical flexibility.
- Funding women and BIPOC-led grassroots organizations.
We must invest not only in government and private sector programs, but also in grassroots, women and BIPOC-led organizations working directly within their communities. These direct investments will flow to the most impacted groups, with less bureaucracy, and have the capacity to address the specific and immediate needs of the populations they serve.
To tackle the “she-cession,” we must implement and support programs that account for not just the challenges faced by women, but specifically the challenges faced by BIPOC and young women. We must aim to build a system that creates more economic opportunities for them.
We should aim to remedy shortcomings that existed before this crisis and contribute to the resilient workforce of the future we all need. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past. We cannot build resiliency if we are not shoring up the futures of all women.