It’s a bumpy ride for women trying to get back to work post-Covid

The deep divisions in Canada’s labour market have taken on heightened urgency

Katherine Scott

The onslaught of COVID-19 in March 2020 led to one of the most dramatic economic shutdowns in Canadian history. Millions of people lost their jobs – especially women working in vulnerable sectors, such as restaurants and hotels.

Now that Canada has entered its post-pandemic-recession phase, many women are getting back into the paid workforce, but not everyone has bounced right back.

Canada’s economic recovery is proving to be as unequal as the initial downturn, which also hit women harder – though it wasn’t easy for anyone. Overall, men have returned to the workforce in larger numbers than women.

For single mothers, it continues to be a challenge. The employment rate for single parents with children under the age of six dropped sharply at the start of the pandemic, in spring 2020. That feels like a lifetime ago but, two years later, many single parents have yet to return to the paid workforce. Many have been struggling to cope with recurring economic shutdowns and the prolonged challenges of homeschooling or hybrid classrooms.

Older single women have faced recurring job losses and heightened financial stress. Some Canadians have yet to return to paid work, if they ever will. By the end of last year, about 250,000 people had left the job market – mostly women over the age of 55.

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Immigrant women workers were also hard hit during the initial lockdown – a result of their overrepresentation in lower-wage and shorter-tenure jobs in pandemic-vulnerable sectors. Others worked throughout the pandemic in high-risk jobs, with few employment protections.

There is a silver lining: by spring 2021, the employment situation started to improve among recent women immigrants and racialized female workers, closing the employment gap with non-immigrant and non-racialized women.

Meanwhile, pandemic-vulnerable jobs, such as working in restaurants, hotels and personal services, haven’t fully recovered from the recession. These sectors lost 288,000 workers between December 2019 and December 2021. Women accounted for 60 per cent of these job losses.

In contrast, employment in the rest of the economy has returned to pre-pandemic levels. Women represent just under half of these job gains.

Professional services have posted the largest gains. Here, men accounted for 59 per cent of new well-paid employment in areas such as accounting, computer systems design and scientific research.

The deep divisions in Canada’s labour market have taken on heightened urgency in recent months, with the growing pressures on family budgets, the winding down of emergency supports and continuing economic uncertainty.

Add to the mix another pressure – the rising cost of living: in February 2022, the annual change in inflation was 5.7 per cent, but women’s average wages only grew by only 2.2 per cent.

The wage-to-inflation gap is especially pronounced in several key care occupations: nursing, child care and community service workers. These essential occupations all experienced real income losses after taking inflation into account.

In contrast, the largest wage increases have been in high-paying industries, such as information technology, culture and recreation (led by information technology professionals); in real estate and leasing, whose workers have benefited from the surge in housing prices; and in the management of companies and enterprises. These are all sectors where men tend to work.

It’s clear that there are profound economic and social changes at hand that will most certainly transform Canada over the coming decades. “Where to next?” is the question we’re all grappling with.

Without focusing recovery efforts on the needs of those experiencing the greatest barriers to work, Canada’s post-recession recovery will be prolonged for the most marginalized, who have already borne the worst of the pandemic. Policy-makers focused on the post-pandemic recovery should take note.

Katherine Scott is a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and serves as its director of gender equality and public policy work. She has worked in the community sector as a researcher, writer and advocate over the past 25 years, writing on a range of social and economic policy issues.

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