Chairman's Desk

The ‘she-cession’ may be new but its underlying causes are not

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on May 24, 2020.

Of all the inequalities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is none more glaring than the profoundly unequal effect it has had on the lives of women.

The impacts are felt everywhere. Primary caregivers have been forced to balance their professional and personal lives like never before, as children stay home from school and work comes home. The psychological and financial pressures of the pandemic have exacerbated the conditions for domestic violence, which impacts Canadian women at a disproportionate rate. Most workers in Canadian long-term care facilities — a group uniquely vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 — are women.

But the fact is, these issues did not arrive with COVID-19 nor will they disappear with a vaccine.

First, the role of women at home. As we look ahead to the reopening of our economy, the wildly unequal division of labour in most households, along with the expected phased nature of reopening, will pose additional challenges for women seeking to return to work.

While some daycares in Ontario have reopened, schools and camps will be closed until the fall. How can we expect parents to return to work without any feasible options for child care?

Second, in public health terms, women face a crisis with unequal repercussions. Over 50 per cent of Canada’s COVID-19 cases and deaths are women, making us an exception among nations where the prevailing trend is one of majority-male cases. The apparent reasons are that Canadian women live longer than men and many high-risk jobs (like long-term care work) are done by women. But the trend is disturbing nonetheless.

And third, there is the troublingly unequal economic impact for women. Unlike previous recessions that have mostly impacted goods-producing sectors, COVID-19’s devastation has been largely focused on the service economy.

In the 2008/2009 recession, widespread hits to manufacturing and construction meant that a male workforce bore the brunt of the downturn. But, this time out, rather than job sites and warehouses, it is hospitality and retail that are hurting most. As a result, the majority of jobs lost due to COVID-19, in both Canada and the United States, have been held by women. From mid-February to mid-March, nearly 62 per cent of Canadian job losses were experienced by women.

But those numbers hide an even more significant challenge. Many of those women were let go earlier than their male counterparts and their return to the workplace will be a more significant uphill battle.

It’s now clear that what we face in 2020 is not simply a recession but a “she-cession”; one that will impact the economic life of women in a very unequal way.

So what does this mean? It means our governments need to ditch the playbook they used in 2008/2009 and create one that responds to the needs of this particular crisis.

And they have begun to do just that. So far, Trudeau and his cabinet have shown a promising commitment to addressing some of the issues facing women across Canada: $50 million has been provided for services that support women, children and victims of assault and last week; Minister Mary Ng announced a $15 million investment to help female business owners through the pandemic. The augmented Canada Child Benefit announced by the prime minister this week is another step in the right direction.

But compare this to more than $280-billion in overall COVID-19 relief and the case is made that much, much more is needed.

And there are other considerations. Rather than simply focusing on social supports and targeted pandemic spending, the Trudeau government must take a holistic approach that considers the role of women in our wider economic recovery. That means proper tools to track and analyze the unique impact of this crisis along gender lines as well as innovative options for bolstering our service economy to ensure that unemployment trends no longer impact female earners so profoundly. It also means a genuine commitment to tackle the gender inequalities that predate COVID-19 but have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Getting this right — resolving our systematic challenges as well as our temporal ones — will allow us to come out of this crisis as a stronger, more caring and more successful country.