Women – the real economic shock absorbers in Canada’s economy

The COVID-19 pandemic is shaping up to be a significant setback for women’s economic security, and those facing intersecting systemic discrimination are suffering the largest and most profound losses and face the greatest difficulties emerging from the crisis.

March 15, 2021

4-minute read

This is part three of a three-part series on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women's economic security in Canada. Part one, Frontlined and sidelined: The year COVID-19 upended women’s economic security, is available here. Part two, Responses to the crisis in women’s employment: Do they measure up?, is available here.

The COVID-19 pandemic is shaping up to be a significant setback for women’s economic security, and those facing intersecting systemic discrimination are suffering the largest and most profound losses and face the greatest difficulties emerging from the crisis.

The pandemic has also graphically revealed the ways Canada’s economy and care work are fundamentally intertwined and the critical role that the social safety net plays, or fails to play, in times of crisis.

Investments in women’s employment – and especially in caring services – have largely been an after-thought, exposing the systematic undervaluing of women’s paid and unpaid work.

    The near global refusal to address the untenable tension between women’s paid and unpaid work through proactive and meaningful investments in the care economy, targeting the most marginalized, suggests the challenges and hardships ahead are formidable.

    These policy decisions assume that families – and, more specifically, women in those families – are available to step in to pick up the slack, to take up an even larger share of responsibilities themselves or to purchase these needed supports such as child care, food preparation, or tutoring from other more economically precarious women.

    The near global refusal to address the untenable tension between women’s paid and unpaid work through proactive and meaningful investments in the care economy, targeting the most marginalized, suggests the challenges and hardships ahead are formidable.

    The federal government, for its part, has provided a pandemic response that is “gender aware” but not “gender transformative” – to use the language of GBA+. Women’s economic contribution as well as their care work are explicitly acknowledged but not the structural factors at the root of gender inequality. By contrast, the situation of women and marginalized communities barely merits a mention in Ontario’s Budget or Alberta’s Recovery Plan.

    As a result, provincial and federal social and economic programs continue to respond poorly to the systemic barriers that women face today – and, for women confronting intersecting forms of discrimination, they miss the mark altogether.

    There remain significant gaps in the types of income supports and public services available that would facilitate the participation of different groups of women in the paid labour market and support caring labour more equitably.

    A plan is needed that creates the enabling conditions for women to engage in paid employment, addressing the structural disadvantages and barriers that different women face targeted investments.

    What’s needed: An intersectional feminist recovery plan

    Recovery planning provides an opportunity to tackle head on the gender bias in economic thinking and public policy that has neglected the value of social infrastructure – such as childcare and long term care – and promoted austerity and deregulation as appropriate responses to the challenge of facilitating shared and sustainable prosperity. Transformative policies that support both paid and unpaid caring labour will be crucial to stopping the looming erosion of women’s economic and social rights.

    A plan is needed that creates the enabling conditions for women to engage in paid employment, addressing the structural disadvantages and barriers that different women face through targeted investments, for example, in high quality child care, programming to eliminate violence against women/gender-based violence, and employment accommodations and supports for women with disabilities and other groups, tailored to the needs.

    An inclusive and sustainable economy also stands on a foundation of strong employment standards and protections, effective income security programs that protect against risks and mitigate income disparities, and essential community infrastructure.

    The goal is to ensure that wealth, work and care responsibilities are more fairly distributed, and that everyone – racialized women, women with disabilities, low income women, trans and queer women – can engage in the economy on equitable and just terms, in ways that generate shared prosperity and well-being for all.

    Recommendations:

    • Recovery planning needs to prioritize moving beyond the fragmented approach of underfunding, privatization, and exploitation of those working in care sectors, propped up by systemic discrimination. Significant investments in quality public services will not only lift women workers, but have a cascading positive impact across the economy, environment, and communities.

    • A minimum wage that reflects living wages, paid sick days, and permanent residency for migrant workers combined with labour protections that promote stability will support continued labour market participation, ease reliance on income supports, and ensure women don’t remain concentrated in the low end of the labour force or drop out completely.

    • Strong labour protections must be complemented by legislative mechanisms that raise the floor for women’s wages, such as proactive pay equity and pay transparency.

    • A training and skills-building plan is needed that takes into account new directions in work and prioritizes women in order to facilitate their access to decent work in emerging sectors as well as those where they are currently under-or over-represented (e.g. care services).

    • A just recovery plan must also continue to financially support people with continuing caring obligations, and those facing the ongoing loss of employment or reduced earnings, as the economy recovers.

    • Established income support programs, with their overly restrictive eligibility requirements, must be redesigned to weed out gender bias and re-oriented to respond to the expected large-scale transformation of work over the next decade.

    • The roll-out of Canada emergency measures offer important lessons for strengthening income security permanently, especially the value of enhancing coverage and creating a higher “minimum income floor” through new programs like the proposed Canada Disability Benefit.

    • Modernizing old systems, such as Employment Insurance, to reflect current and future labour realities, and building out the role and generosity of programs to help offset the costs of essential goods such as housing, medication, and attendant care should also be top priorities.


      For more on this topic, check out Katherine's conversation with Anjum Sultana from March 12, 2021 on our Youtube channel.

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