Until very recently, the number of women in the workforce was at an all-time high. Economist Claudia Goldin confirmed that the current generation of college and university-educated women has come closer to attaining both a career and a family at the same time, than any other generation before. Then 2020 and Covid-19 happened. This pandemic has thrust gender inequality into the spotlight. It has illuminated how quickly progress can unravel, in both the home and the workplace.
Women are essential workers at home - performing a large share of domestic duties and childcare. They also make up a large percentage of essential worker jobs, such as caregivers, childcare workers, nurses, and other medical professionals. The pandemic has forced women around the world, including right here in North America, into situations where they are forced to make the choice of caring for their own family, or their career.
Through this past year, we’ve seen how our economic system relies heavily on the critical unpaid work of women. Restrictions on schools and childcare centres have added a burden of unpaid care work onto parents, with mothers shouldering the bulk of it.
Business shutdowns and layoffs have also affected the sectors where women make up a large percentage of workers - i.e. retail, accommodation and food services, and personal care services. Many of these businesses are also owned by female entrepreneurs and tend to be newer or less well financed than businesses in other industries dominated by men. Unfortunately, the covid-19 pandemic is having a severe economic impact on women.
Research put out by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) warns that this is not only a major concern for women, but it strongly affects the province’s economy and society in general. Women in the workforce are imperative to a prosperous economy as well as economic recovery efforts.
The disparities are strongest for women of colour. Covid-19-related job losses are highest among women of colour, especially Black and Asian women. Women who experience intersecting forms of discrimination, such as younger mothers, lower-income women, single mothers, Indigenous women, immigrant women, and women with disabilities are also experiencing greater financial ramifications.
Right now, we all need to be more concerned about what is happening to women and their role in the economy. Access to affordable and reliable childcare is paramount to women’s participation in the labour force. Extended closures will lead to more women leaving the workforce, many forced to give up careers for which they have worked hard. In fact, a recent study found that one out of four women who reported becoming unemployed during this pandemic has said it was because of a lack of childcare - twice the rate compared to men.
Why should we be concerned?
Research shows that women who drop out of the workforce to care for their children often have a great deal of trouble getting back in. Additionally, the longer they remain out of the workforce, the harder it is to get back in. There are also subsequent wage losses and a loss of secure employment that follows recessions. This means that the recent disruption to child care will likely affect both women’s earnings and labour force participation for many years to come. The long-term setbacks will also be most severe for the most vulnerable women among us - refugees, single mothers, low-income, and migrant workers.
Women are leading the fight against Covid on the front lines of their jobs, and at home. Yet, women have been excluded from most discussions on economic recovery, support, and innovation. Although this crisis has severe gender implications, we have not applied a gender and diversity lens to covid-19 and the problems that have been created by the pandemic. Just as women are at the forefront of the pandemic itself, women must be at the front of recovery and rebuilding strategies. Supporting women, their careers and their families during this crisis will benefit everyone and lead to stronger chances of successful economic recover.