The Current

Why 'traditional' measures won't help women's post-pandemic economic recovery

As the COVID-19 crisis deals an unprecedented blow to women’s employment, one expert says Canada’s post-pandemic economic recovery needs a “new playbook.”

More women than men fell out of workforce from February to October, study finds

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland delivers the 2020 fiscal update in the House of Commons on Monday. As part of the update, the federal government announced the first steps in its plan to build a Canada-wide child-care system, to help women get back to work. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

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As the COVID-19 crisis deals an unprecedented blow to women's employment, one expert says Canada's post-pandemic economic recovery needs a "new playbook."

"Canada, and frankly the world, has never experienced something quite like this," said Anjum Sultana, director of public policy and strategic communications at YWCA Canada.

"So we can't use the traditional measures of investing in men-majority sectors, because those weren't the sectors that were most impacted," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. "We can't have traditional stimulus funding in roads, bridges, et cetera."

A recent economic report from RBC found that more than 20,000 women fell out of the labour force between February and October of this year, while nearly 68,000 men joined it. Child-care responsibilities impacted women's ability to return to work, as did the fact that they are more likely to be in industries hard-hit by pandemic restrictions, the report based on Statistics Canada data found.

To help women — particularly those with children — get back to work, the federal government announced on Monday the first steps in a multi-year plan to build a Canada-wide child-care system as part of its long-awaited fall economic statement.

Sultana said she was pleased that the government's economic plan recognized the pandemic's disproportionate impact on women, and that it promised to invest in early childhood educators and create jobs.

However, what the fiscal update lacked was a breakdown of how the government's strategy on youth employment and skills would support young women, who have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

According to RBC's study, women between the ages of 20 and 24, and those aged 35 to 39, are exiting the workforce the fastest. For the older age group, the reason is largely related to having young children at home that need care.

Mississauga, Ont., hairstylist Janel Sherise with her son. Sherise found herself out of work during the pandemic and has since started a cheesecake business so she can provide for her family. (Visual Stimulations)

Janel Sherise knows what this so-called "she-cession" is like.

The Mississauga, Ont., hairstylist had just finished her maternity leave when the pandemic struck earlier this year, leaving her out of a job.

But with a little one now at home, she needed child care in order to return to the workforce — and child care requires an income to pay for it, she said.

It can be mentally exhausting sometimes because, you know, you have this one-year-old that needs your attention, but you also need to run a business.- Janel Sherise

"It was very frustrating because I'm used to being in the workforce and helping to provide for my family," Sherise said.

She's since started a cheesecake business to boost her income. But it hasn't been easy juggling family and work responsibilities. Sherise said she often tries to bake between her son's naps, and doesn't get much sleep these days.

"It can be mentally exhausting sometimes because, you know, you have this one-year-old that needs your attention, but you also need to run a business," she said. "There's no in-between for you to rest and relax and sleep."

Child-care system a 'tall order'

Although women have made up "considerable ground" since the economy's reopening earlier this year, those like Sherise who work in industries with lots of person-to-person contact are experiencing a slower economic recovery, said Dawn Desjardins, deputy chief economist with RBC.

"It's this lingering effect that we're really watching right now," she said.

Desjardins said the federal government needs to ensure Canadians have access to a child-care system that will be affordable, accessible and inclusive. If women's participation in the workforce was equal to that of men, it could boost Canada's GDP by about $100 billion, leading to a "very material lift" in Canada's economic prosperity, she said.

However, it's a "tall order, and it's a particularly tall order during a pandemic," she said, explaining that it may not be realistic for a child-care system to happen overnight right now, while so much focus is on keeping people healthy.

She said the government is laying the groundwork" for a child-care system, but "at this particular moment, it is very important for us to first, you know, ensure that businesses and households can manage to the other side of the pandemic," Desjardins said.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Idella Sturino and Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.