Women & COVID-19: Pandemic could set marginalized women back for decades

A master’s student in Toronto has been staring at her bills for a while, trying to figure out how she is going to find the money to pay them. Although she has earned some academic bursaries, the money is running low now that the semester is cancelled, and she can’t work as a teaching assistant. She normally picks up a couple of shifts at a local restaurant for extra cash, but she was laid off as soon as bars and restaurants were forced to shut down.

CERB has kept her afloat for a while, but her next payment will be her last so she needs to find a new job soon. Her roommate bursts into the room. He grabs his pre-packed lunch off the counter and waves goodbye as he heads out the door to work. He was laid off when COVID-19 first hit too, but he found another job quickly. She puts down the bills and opens her laptop to begin another day of online job hunting.

The spread of COVID-19 has exacerbated the inequities that women face in Canadian society. On average, women earn less, many work precarious jobs and they do not have the same economic security as their male peers. The pandemic has intensified these wage gaps and amplified existing socio-economic inequities in our communities. COVID-19 could set working women back for decades.

These disparities are further compounded for women from marginalized communities such as women living with disabilities, racialized women, Black women, Indigenous women, lesbians, bisexuals, trans and non-binary people, senior women, immigrant women and more. Discrimination and systemic racism will make it increasingly difficult for marginalized women to recover even when the economy opens up again and this makes them more likely to have poor health outcomes.

In part II of PSAC’s series on Women & COVID-19, we examine the impacts of the pandemic on women in the workforce.

Loss of job security and economic independence

Before the spread of COVID-19, women were already more likely to be unemployed, under-employed or working part-time due to caregiving responsibilities. The economic shut down as a result of COVID-19 has made their situation much worse. According to Statistics Canada, in March nearly 300,000 women between the ages of 25-54 lost their jobs, while only 127,000 men the same age became unemployed.

This can largely be explained by the number of women in the industries hardest hit by closures. According to Statistics Canada, women make up 69% of education services and nearly 59% of accommodation and food services. Not only were women twice as likely to lose their jobs, they have also been slower to regain them as the economy begins to re-open. In May, employment increased amongst men by 2.4% (206,000 jobs), while it only increased by 1.1% for women (84,000 jobs).

The closures of schools and daycares have created an additional hurdle for many women because women, more than men, have been forced to limit their working hours or give up work altogether. Last month, Statistics Canada reported that women were more likely to lose hours at work due to child care demands. In some instances, women have also been forced to make the difficult decision to leave their jobs to provide child care or family care during the pandemic. In May, women with children were less likely to go back to work than men with children.

Racialized women and employment barriers

If you take other factors into account, such as race, the picture becomes even more grim. According to a study done by the University of Toronto in 2016, candidates who applied to jobs with anglicized names had a 25% chance of getting a call back. Candidates who had Black sounding names or volunteer experience at Black organizations, received a call back only 10% of the time. This makes it difficult for racialized women to even get in the door for an interview.

The results of this study help explain why Statistics Canada reported in 2018 that racialized women had the highest unemployment rate at 10%, compared to 8.7% for racialized men, 7% for non-racialized men and 6.4% for non-racialized women. These numbers seem out of step with the fact that racialized women are more likely (30%) than non-racialized women (19.5%) to have earned a university degree. The economic shutdown brought on by COVID-19 will only further reduce the opportunities available to racialized women.

To prevent the pandemic from being the catalyst for a female recession, this government must:

  • fund programs to support women re-entering the workforce and provide re-training to women who may need to enter a new line of work
  • expand the availability of safe, licensed, childcare to parents of preschool and/or school-age children so that it doesn’t create a barrier for women to return to the workforce
  • Implement the recommendations provided by PSAC on their anti-racism strategy

Take Action

How can you help? Advocate for the Honourable Minister Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, to develop a plan to sustain early learning and child care sector through the pandemic.



July 17, 2020