The She-cession: How COVID-19 killed gender diversity

"We need to be firing on all cylinders and working on every front to restore GDP growth and women are a critical part of that"

The She-cession: How COVID-19 killed gender diversity

With 1.5 million losing their jobs in the first two months of the COVID-19 pandemic, women’s participation in the Canadian labour force was knocked to its lowest level in three decades, says a recent Royal Bank of Canada report. Faced with slow and uneven economic recovery, the country’s gross domestic product was slashed 5% — and with women’s jobs rebounding at a slower rate than men’s, the GDP could take an even more significant hit.

“We need to be firing on all cylinders and working on every front to restore GDP growth and women are a critical part of that,” says Jennifer Reynolds, President and CEO of Toronto Finance International. “We’ll never get back to where we were if we don’t focus on making sure women get back to where they were — or hopefully better.”

Sectors where women are predominantly employed — such as accommodation and food services, retail, educational services and social assistance — were hardest hit by the COVID-19 fallout. But worse than the initial recession, the report found, is the fact that as the economy slowly begins to rev up again women are being rehired at a lower rate than their male counterparts. Despite accounting for 51% of job losses in March and April, women made up just 45% of job gains in May and June as economic activity restarted.

“We’ve seen actually a very good recovery in men’s jobs and it’s expected that by the end of the year men’s employment will be very close to where it was just prior to the pandemic,” says Reynolds, but adds women’s employment rate is still around 20% below where it was pre-pandemic.

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“That’s a huge concern not just in the short term, but the longer women are out of the workforce the harder it is for them to get back in and you can’t catch up — those wages never get caught up.”

Canada’s labour participation rates compare well to its Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development peers, but the problem is though the country has seen a strong increase in participation rates “we haven’t seen movement on the wage gap. It’s persistent at more significant levels than other countries,” Reynolds says.

When it comes to total earnings of full-time workers, women are at about 75% of men, or 70% total wage if you factor in that many women work part-time hours. Those numbers are “significant and double what you see in other developed countries” that also have higher participation rates but have narrowed the wage gap more significantly.

What is the ‘she-cession’?
She-cession” is an accurate description as historically Canada experienced the opposite — men were harder hit in past economic recessions, but at this point its a completely different dynamic,” Reynolds says.

“It’s good for everybody if we can get more women working and narrow that wage gap as well,” she adds, noting the RBC report states that if labour participation rates were the same for men and women there would be $100 billion increase in economic output.

“These are things we all need to care about. If you think about that in the context of COVID-19 and the tremendous impact that’s had on the economy, it makes it all the more important.”

Increasing the participation of women in the workforce has been a hard-fought battle, and there’s still a ways to go especially now, post-COVID-19. Reynolds says it bodes ill if there’s no specific focus on initiatives to make sure women get back to work as that could result in an actual widening of the wage gap.

What we need to do, she says, in every decision made about recovery is “put that gender lens on and think about all parts of our economy and all workers in our economy.”

How can we improve gender diversity?
“There will be all sorts of government initiatives, there will be all kinds of people deciding where the stimulus spending goes, and I really am a firm believer that we need diversity at that table,” says Reynolds. “We need women represented at that table when we’re developing those policies because we do have a unique perspective, we do have unique problems, and unless we’re there at the table with the boys we’re not going to come up with optimal solutions that will work for women.”

The fact the responsibility of caregiving falls disproportionately on women is one of those unique problems. According to the report, employment among women with children school aged or younger fell 7% between February and May, compared to a decline of 4% among fathers with children in the same age group. Single mothers were even more significantly impacted — employment was down 12% from February to June compared to a 7% decline among single fathers.

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"Worryingly, the outsized role women play in the industries hardest hit by this recession, together with ongoing uncertainties about availability of school and childcare in the fall, mean this lost ground won't easily be recovered," states the report.

There are many things companies can do to help ease the burden on working mother employees, especially from a private sector perspective Reynolds says. It’s key to make sure “we’re thinking in a whole different way about how people work” including questioning the 9-5 structure.

"Larger institutions in the financial sector are already doing this — they’re starting to think about what kind of flexibility they can give in terms of when employees work,” she says. “Obviously now we know we can be a lot more flexible. We thought for a long time there were jobs where you absolutely had to be in the office, but you don’t. There are all kinds of jobs you can actually do from home and now we’re recognizing that.”

Silver linings?
A silver lining according to the report is that women who are primary earners are more likely to be able to work from home than their male contemporaries.

“Only 38% of primary-earner males can work from home compared to 62% of primary-earner females,” states the report. “Moreover, half of single-earner women and unattached women and nearly half of single mothers are able to work from home.”

But Reynolds argues even if companies allow their people to work from home and offer different hours, there still has to be a recognition that women do more of the childcare — or elder care in some cases —and that takes up many hours too.

“Are there different ways to support that? I think as an economy, both private and public, we need to think about childcare and school as critical,” Reynolds says. “We’re not going to solve this problem if we don’t figure those pieces out. We absolutely need those two elements to make this work for women.”

When deciding on solutions, Reynolds says some of the stimulus funding needs to be intentionally directed to specific groups. Many programs and initiatives in the public and private sector are launched, “but we dont always track how were doing or whos actually benefitting from these things.”

For example, government procurement outside of childcare and schools — is there a diversity lens to that? Funding for small- and medium-sized  businesses — are we making sure we’ve got targets for gender there?

“We have to be really disciplined and take a look at all the data here and make sure we’re tracking,” Reynolds says. “I think the countries that are going to be successful will be the ones who hold themselves accountable for these recovery initiatives.”

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