The she-cession we are seeing roll out is not just a problem of the current day, the more alarming issue is the impact it will have on Canada’s economic recovery in the years ahead. Going into this pandemic, women accounted for 42 percent of household income, making them not only key breadwinners for their families but also key drivers of the economy. Recent statistics from RBC show that half a million women who lost their jobs during the pandemic had not returned to work as of January. Even worse, 200,000 had dropped into the ranks of long-term unemployed, a threefold increase over last year. Since February, women have also been exiting the labour market entirely at 10x the rate of men. These shifts in our workforce need to be addressed quickly and effectively, or we stand to see a prolonged reversal in women’s participation in the workforce and a significant drag on our economic recovery.
Women in the economy
A large part of the unemployment dynamic that is playing out is a result of the types of jobs women held in the economy. Women are over-represented in the sectors that are more vulnerable to layoffs, like accommodation and food services. Not only have these sectors been harder hit during the pandemic, even with widespread vaccinations many of those jobs may not come back as businesses shift due to changing consumer habits and new digital ways of operating. Conversely, jobs where men dominate, like construction and manufacturing have returned, and areas like professional, scientific and technical services jobs have actually grown.
The other element at play is the fact that women have taken on a disproportionate amount of childcare and household responsibilities during the pandemic. A recent CIBC poll showed that women were almost twice as likely to be mainly responsible for supervising learning, childcare and household cleaning. This double-duty is resulting in many women deciding to leave the workforce altogether. While women with children under 6 accounted for 41 percent of the workforce in February, they now account for two-thirds of the ensuing exit from the workforce. In fact, in the last year 12 times as many mothers as fathers left their jobs to care for toddlers or school-aged children.
Without a doubt, policies to address childcare will be critical to returning women to the workforce in the short and long term. However, policymakers also need to focus on longer-term initiatives that drive women into sectors with the jobs of the future. To narrow the gender equality gap and drive GDP growth, moving more women into higher productivity sectors, such as technology, is just as important as increasing labour participation rates. The fact that women have been over 50 percent of university graduates for 30 years should have resulted in much better gender diversity across sectors. The reality is the talent pipeline for many of the jobs of the future is not reflective of the demographics of our post-graduates and this is a fundamental inefficiency in our economy. The wage gap will remain stubbornly high until we have better gender diversity across the sectors in Canada.
Diversity and leadership as the solution
To increase the representation of women in high productivity sectors and leadership roles in the economy, companies need to renew and strengthen their commitments to gender diversity objectives. A focus on retaining female employees and pro-actively recruiting women to fill the jobs of the future will be critical to turning back the damage the she-cession has inflicted, and to strengthening our businesses in the years to come. Setting gender diversity targets, stating them publicly, and holding leaders accountable should be the norm and not the exception. Tracking data and metrics at every level in the organization is critical to accelerating progress. The pipeline often starts relatively healthy and begins to weaken at successive levels of leadership. Tracking the data will highlight where systemic barriers and company culture is holding back diversity objectives. As the saying goes, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The best-laid gender diversity plans can only succeed with organizational buy-in and consistent leadership.
Restoring the erosion of women’s labour force participation gains and driving greater economic equality is not only critical to the post-pandemic recovery but is also a valuable lever Canada can use to drive the future growth and success of our economy. Before the pandemic, McKinsey Global Institute estimated that the impact of reducing the economic gender gap would add $150 billion in incremental GDP, six percent higher than business-as-usual GDP growth forecasts over the next decade. In the face of the gravity of the economic impact of the pandemic, Canada needs to get serious about addressing the root causes of this she-cession and including women in our economic recovery.