Nearly a year into the pandemic, women’s participation in the workforce still sits at staggering lows, after rates plummeted from historic highs to the worst in more than a generation.
Experts say the situation threatens the many economic gains women have made over the decades and exposes continuing fault lines in gender equality.
“I was very mad – very mad. I felt like it was so unfair,” says Jennifer Hargreaves.
As a wife, a mother and an entrepreneur, she has many responsibilities. When the pandemic hit, it was her business that went on the back burner.
“My husband has the stable job. He has the job that pays the bills, and somebody had to look after the kids,” she explains. “I am the lower-income earner, so it really fell down to me to pick up the responsibilities within the household.”
She says trying to keep her business, Tellent, going without childcare or in-person school took an added emotional and physical toll.
“I was in tears every Friday night by four p.m. I was exhausted,” she said. “I was picking up work where I could. In the morning before the kids got up, after they went to bed, I was working on weekends as well.”
Right now, a so-called “shecession” is underway in Canada, with women leaving the workforce at unprecedented levels.
In the first two months of the pandemic, 1.5 million Canadian women lost or left their jobs, reports RBC Economics. Single mothers and women with young children were among the hardest hit. The leader of Catalyst Canada, a non-profit organization that helps companies build workplaces that work for women, calls the impact “the motherhood penalty.”
“During COVID we have seen that almost half of women say that childcare or household duties are falling to them while working at home,” says Vandana Juneja, Catalyst Canada’s executive director. “At the same time a quarter of men are reporting the same.”
Since the first lockdown in spring 2020, some women have rejoined the labour force, but RBC reports the participation still sits at a 20-year low. What’s more, the report notes that in the fall, as 68,000 men began to search for new work, more than 20,000 women left the labour force entirely.
“That’s set up a divergent, and troubling, trajectory that’s seen Canadian women continue to retreat from the workforce even as Canadian men more than make up for ground lost early in the pandemic,” write the RBC authors. They explain that the longer a woman is out of the workforce, the greater the chance her job skills will become outdated, making it even harder for her to re-join the labour force down the road. This in turn could also impact Canada’s future economic recovery at large.
Women aged 20 to 24, and those aged 35 to 39, are exiting the workforce at higher rates, notes RBC. While the younger cohort is largely heading back to school, a sizable number of 35 to 39 year-olds leaving the workforce are mothers. To get more women back, experts say companies need to offer more flexibility and also highlight the need for more affordable, flexible childcare.
Another factor contributing to the exit of working women is that disproportionately, they work in industries that have been severely impacted by the pandemic. Statistics Canada says women once occupied 55 per cent of jobs lost in retail and hospitality. The situation is particularly dire in food services, which saw another mass layoff in the fall when the summer tourism season came to a close. Of the 48,000 workers who lost their jobs in that industry in October, about 80 per cent were women.
Burn out is being felt by women at all levels.
“For example, research has shown that senior-level women are also being pushed to the brink, including those without children – so not only the motherhood penalty,” says Juneja.
After a few months of scaling back, Hargreaves was able to once again focus on her company, but she notes that for many women it won’t be that easy.
“I’d say one of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it’s brought all these issues to the forefront to say: ‘It wasn’t equal,” she says. “We have a real opportunity to build back something that is better and works more equally for everybody contributing.”