It is such ironic timing.
Appointed in August, Chrystia Freeland — Canada’s first female finance minister — takes the economic reins at the pivotal moment when women are leaving the labour force in stunning numbers. Strong leadership is needed because the situation will impact the role of women in the economy for years to come.
According to a recent RBC Economics paper, 20,600 Canadian women left the labour force between February and October, while nearly 68,000 men joined.
To make matters worse, women aged 20-24 and 35-39 are leaving the workplace at an alarming pace. The younger cohort may be returning to school or retraining, but the older cohort are more likely to be working mothers who had hopes for advancement.
Similarly, a Deloitte study has found that over 80 per cent of women “have been adversely affected by the pandemic,” with the majority of those women “concerned about their ability to progress in their careers.”
While governments are rightfully seized with life-and-death pandemic scenarios, they must also frame a long-term vision. How will they attract women back to the workforce when COVID-19 has cut such a destructive path?
It was all predictable. Last April, Pamela Jeffrey, a well-known entrepreneur and business guru, envisioned the Prosperity Project, a new non-profit designed to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on women in the labour force. While Jeffery intuitively realized the pandemic’s dramatic effect on the numbers of female workers, the stories of the women who connected with the project reveal the depths of their dilemma.
Time and again, women lamented the feeling of loss. Over the past year, personal dreams have been put on hold, relationships have changed and career trajectories have been stalled. Inequities have been glaringly exposed. One woman incisively noted that “we did not all come to the COVID table on equal footing.” Those who were poorer, marginalized or racialized had tougher times. Another commented that “the economy is once again dependent on the backs of women.”
The uncertainty of school shutdowns, combined with the necessity to isolate a child if symptoms develop, forced many women to choose between work and family responsibilities — which sometimes included senior parents isolated in long-term care homes. The gender pay gap — which means that often the male partner has a larger income — combined with the lack of flexible, affordable and quality child care has thrown the burden of domestic duties again on women, taking us back to the future with a 1950s lifestyle.
Even worse, some women did not have the luxury of choice. They were overrepresented in the hardest hit sectors: restaurant servers, retail sales assistants and airline flight attendants. Their jobs literally left them. Single women may especially feel the bite of poverty.
Intergenerational issues cropped up constantly as a reason for not returning to work. The informal child care support from grandparents many relied on was not available as physical distancing kept families apart.
Juggling priorities is much harder for low-paid essential workers — often from immigrant communities — who have to physically go to work, jeopardizing their health and safety as well as that of their families. Professional immigrant women already have a 10-year transition gap before they can reach equal pay and credentials from former lives. COVID will add to that wait time.
Layers of intersectional issues such as discrimination based on sexual preferences, racism and gender added to the punishing toll for everyone.
Networking and mentoring connections are also at risk, with worrying implications for “career stalls,” not to mention the possible disappearance of female leadership. Female bosses who remain in their positions are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. They too are juggling competing priorities of efficiencies, productivity levels and personnel matters.Matching Initiative Standard Invitation Volunteers
The evidence is clear. We are losing a pipeline of women in the economy, which many of us foresaw as a pathway to a robust economic future. Low female employment will result in less economic growth, decreased consumer spending and reduced taxation.
A female minister of finance may be the right choice at this tough time. Fingers crossed.