The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a serious toll on women’s participation in the workforce. Over the past year, this phenomenon has been well documented, with countless stories warning that this loss will set women back decades—while simultaneously hurting the economy.
In Canada, 1.5 million women lost their jobs in the first two months of the pandemic alone. Not only has COVID-19 plagued women-dominated industries with closures and layoffs—including education, social assistance, and food services—but it’s also placed mounting pressure on working mothers to either balance their jobs with parenting or leave the workforce altogether.
Sociologist and Carleton University professor Rania Tfaily warns that this situation reinforces the dated gender roles of men as breadwinners and women as caregivers, which could have long-term implications. “Mothers who [leave] the labor force might encounter increased difficulties in finding work in the future; their earnings, savings, and pensions might also be affected. This could render some of them more economically dependent on their spouses in the long-term,” Tfaily explains. “In addition, their exit from the workforce to take on childcare could reinforce gendered division of household labor, which might become more resistant to change even after these women rejoin the labor force.”
Women aged 35 to 39 are one of the fastest cohorts to exit the workforce, and over half have kids under the age of six, according to a Royal Bank analysis. In February 2020, these mothers made up 41 percent of the Canadian labor force, but accounted for two-thirds of its fallout.
Gender hierarchies at home
Prior to the pandemic, some professional women coped by paying others to help with housework and childcare. However, since the pandemic made this option unfeasible, women are feeling more pressure to prioritize parenting over their careers, says Melanee Thomas, a University of Calgary professor of political science. As a result, the pandemic has “really exposed the gender hierarchy in the home,” which has impacted women’s unemployment. “The gender gap in unpaid labor in the home is still really bad,” Thomas continues. “Women now are expected to be much more engaged mothers than in the past.”
Lacey Tondevold-Stewart knows this pressure well. The mom of four from Newmarket, Ont. became a registered social worker last August and has been firing off resumes ever since—but not without guilt. “I’m anxious to work, but I find myself stuck between being unable to find work in my new field and being unable to commit to a new job anyways, due to kids going back and forth between online learning and classroom learning,” she says. “It’s been tough. I’m really, really trying to get into the workforce, but at the same time, I feel this pull to be at home because this situation is so uncertain.”
A national survey commissioned by The Prosperity Project, a non-profit focused on curbing the pandemic’s impact on Canadian women, found that one-third of mothers have thought about quitting their jobs amid the pandemic—compared to only one-fifth of fathers.
The social perception that women are more caring and nurturing than men means that even if women enter or reenter the workforce, explains Thomas, there’s still an unspoken expectation that childcare duties and housework will fall on them.
The need for affordable childcare
Women shouldn’t have to choose between having careers and caring for their children. Both Thomas and Tfaily agree that providing expansive, affordable childcare, coupled with better policies to support parents, can improve the situation for working moms.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau previously committed to building a national childcare system as a way to get women back into the workforce, but this solution is not new. The idea was first proposed in 1970 by the Royal Commission on the Status of Women as a way to achieve gender equality. In addition to childcare, better parenting policies such as more generous parental leave and flexible work arrangements (think four-day work weeks or shorter hours) can help couples establish equitable division of household labor, as well as relationships with their kids when they’re young. Over time, this could help combat dated gender roles.
However, this means employers need to get on board with these policies and be more supportive of working parents, especially when it comes to men taking parental leave, Thomas notes. Studies have shown that men are not expected to take leave when they have kids, and when they do, can be penalized just as women are.
Valuing women in the workforce
Women, particularly mothers, are less valued in the workplace because of the assumption that they are “more likely to be burdened by caregiving duties,” says Tfaily. “Women are, hence, perceived as less committed to their jobs and less competent than men. Such discrimination often costs women job opportunities, promotions, and higher wages.”
Despite generally being more educated than men, women only earn 87 cents for every dollar that men do. While Statistics Canada attributes this to fewer women working in high-paying sectors and more women working part-time, the problem is also systemic. Gender discrimination continues to be prevalent in the workplace, especially in male-dominated fields such as policing and STEM. Marginalized women are also more likely to face greater challenges, especially amid the pandemic, as racialized groups face higher unemployment rates.
“You can have a woman with outstanding credentials, and somebody who’s sexist will always prefer a man if the credentials are the same,” says Thomas, referring to the many resume studies on this topic. “What that means is that in order for a woman to be seen as equal in that mix, her credentials have to be markedly better.”
Aisha Baloni was one of 11 people—most of whom were women—to be laid off from an Ottawa tech company last April due to the pandemic. She says she often thought about gender discrimination in her workplace. “I used to do a lot of interview setups and sit in on phone screens, so I could see that dynamic that people didn’t really see,” says Baloni. “There were a fair share of women applying, but the hiring manager was looking more at [men]—and I feel at times there was some underlying misogyny from the comments that were made.”
Where do we go from here?
Since February 2020, nearly 100,000 Canadian women over the age of 20 have completely exited the labor force, meaning they’re not even looking for work; according to a recent Royal Bank report, that’s 10 times more than the number of men who have left.
“It’s really grim,” says Thomas. “Gender is one of those things people just assume will take care of itself, but we know this is not the case. It’s not a linear process. There’s been plenty of backsliding, and we haven’t even talked about intersections with other identities.”
While it’s clear systemic changes need to be made in terms of universal childcare and parenting policies to improve this situation, men also need to support their partners—especially when it comes to household labor. While these solutions don’t necessarily address the workplace sexism that women often face, they offer a good starting point for helping more women get back to their careers.
“Given the pandemic and its disruptions of women’s work and careers,” Tfaily asserts, “it is an issue of concern whether we might witness increased discrimination against mothers in the labor force in the near future.”
Thomas compares today’s conversations about women in the workforce to those that were had in 1980. At that time, constitutional patriation was “the national moment that gave organized women’s groups a foothold to do advocacy.” She believes we need another moment like this in order for change to happen.
“We are,” she admits, “way less ahead than we thought we were.”