OTTAWA — After more than two years of economic turbulence through the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada's workforce participation overall appears quite rosy for women.
The share of women aged 25 to 54 years old is at its highest level ever in the country at 85 per cent. Meanwhile, unemployment for all workers hit a record low, according to Statistics Canada.
But experts say while looking at the economic big picture might seem like cause for celebration, a closer inspection at the details offers a more nuanced look at the uneven recovery that has not uplifted all groups of women equally.
Women working in sectors directly affected by the pandemic — public-facing jobs and the care economy — were deeply affected by closures throughout the pandemic. While other groups of women remained at work during this period, they were managing a massive increase in unpaid domestic and care work at home. Taken together, experts said these forces affect women's economic security and gender equality as a whole.
Women did much worse during the pandemic compared to previous recessions. In past recessions, about 17 per cent of employment losses were for women, with mostly men losing their jobs, said Brittany Feor, economist at the Labour Market Information Council. During the pandemic recession, job losses were almost evenly split between men and women.
A recent report by the council found that this year, the picture is somewhat positive, said Feor, but it depends on the type of job and sector a woman is working in.
Both points have to do with the fact that many women work in sectors that were vulnerable to pandemic restrictions and precarious to begin with, like accommodation, food services and recreation, said a recent report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Pandemic recovery efforts that focus on those facing the greatest barriers are needed to stave off gender equality gains being lost, said the centre’s report.
Feor also cautioned against the risk of backsliding gains by women as time goes on, specifically noting current work participation by moms.
“It’s much higher than it has been in other years, it's recovered. That seems positive. But it's also still only 2022. So we want to be mindful to check back in three years and four years and five years. What does that look like?” she said.
The effect of having to stay at home with a young child or work from home with a young child may influence women’s career paths in ways that aren’t immediately known, said Feor.
“The setbacks you faced by not being able to participate in a certain project or work longer hours compared to your male counterparts who didn't have to do the same thing — those are issues that will play out in the long-term.”
Juggling home care and work responsibilities may affect a woman’s career as well as her health, said Andrea Gunraj, the vice-president of public engagement for the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
The foundation held a recent poll that suggested Canadian moms are much more likely than dads to say they feel anxious and sad, and those feelings haven’t dissipated since they were asked the year prior.
Maru/Matchbox surveyed 1,506 Canadians from April 20-21 on behalf of the foundation. It cannot be assigned a margin of error because online panels are not considered truly random samples.
About two in five moms said they put their career on the back burner to manage home and caregiving responsibilities.
“That, for me, is a really interesting and upsetting finding because what you see is that people are putting aside paid work to be able to manage unpaid work, essentially. And what does that mean for women's economic well-being, their ability to take care of themselves and their dependants? It's a huge impact on them,” Gunraj said.
Almost half of moms said they are reaching their breaking point this year, compared to just over 30 per cent of dads saying so.
“It’s really a situation of people being really stretched, and women being disproportionately stretched because of unpaid care responsibilities,” Gunraj said.
At a recent funding announcement, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said the government has invested $300 million to create an employment strategy for people with disabilities, created a women’s entrepreneurship fund, and tailoring its apprenticeships and programs to help sectors address labour market needs on women.
When it comes to helping women caregivers, “we know that affordable, accessible child care is No. 1, it's really going to make a difference,” Gunraj said in reference to the new federal plan to create an affordable child-care system across the country.
Gunraj noted it has to be truly affordable and accessible to the most vulnerable families, which means being able to evaluate its outcomes to determine whether it’s not helping people to the extent it needs to, and then improve it.
The national child care plan helps moms and their children, but it could also help create well-paid care work jobs for newly created early childhood educator positions, the CCPA report said.
This depends on the minimum salaries set out by the provinces and territories, with Ontario setting its minimum wage for early childhood educators at $18 per hour.
At the recent announcement alongside Qualtrough, the families, children and social development minister said the federal government asked provinces to include a wage grid in the signed child-care agreements.
“Working conditions and wages are the jurisdiction of provinces and territories. But we are encouraging them at every turn to do more,” said Karina Gould.
New Brunswick increased its minimum hourly wage for early childhood educators to $23.40, Newfoundland to $25 and Yukon to $30, she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 25, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Erika Ibrahim, The Canadian Press