Looking forward: The present and future of women at work

We must make sure the future Canadian economy holds opportunities for women. Action is needed to alleviate gender barriers and advance diversity and inclusion: Good intentions are no longer enough.

As the new year looms before us, it’s normal to question what the future holds. The workplace is changing fast. In the past few years, even just this past year or week, we have seen technological advancements, social movements, and political disruptions. Many people are now trying to predict what the future might hold. 

Will life return to normal this year? After the pandemic ends? 

“So far, the pandemic has hit different groups with varying degrees of severity, which perhaps gives us a clue as to whether they will rebound completely,” said Linda Nazareth in an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail on the future of the post-pandemic labour market. 

“Those who happened to work in hospitality, food services, retail, construction or transportation have had a much greater chance of losing their job than others. Other sectors, however, have flourished.” 

Women however — especially mothers, senior-level women and POC — have faced, and will continue to face, distinct challenges in the future due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The challenges ahead

According to a recent Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Company and Lean In, one in four women are considering downshifting their career or leaving the workplace entirely. 

Many women are worried about potential layoffs and financial insecurity. In addition, the report noted how many are also facing burnout from the additional responsibilities brought on by the pandemic. 

These are some of the challenges we will have to face head on as we go into 2021. 

The workplace has now become more flexible. Some have flourished under this new routine, as the pandemic forced many to leave the office and work remotely. For others, especially women, this change has also highlighted inequities in the division of household labor. There is this shared feeling of needing to be “always on” and available for work, at all hours of the day. 

It’s no wonder then that the economic and social burden of COVID-19 weighs heavily.

“This is the first time we’ve seen signs of women leaving the workforce at higher rates than men; in the previous five years of this study, women and men left their companies at similar rates. If these women feel forced to leave the workforce, we’ll end up with far fewer women in leadership — and far fewer women on track to be future leaders. All the progress we’ve seen over the past five years would be erased.”

Women in the Workplace - McKinsey & Company and Lean In 

The McKinsey & Company and Lean In report is not the only report signalling the challenges ahead for women. A study from the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), released last summer, found that women's participation in the labour force was down to its lowest level in three decades.

Women suffered nearly 63 percent of job losses in March. In fact, in the first two months of the pandemic, 1.5 million Canadian women lost their jobs. 

“Considering the industries in which they are most likely to work together with full-time/part-time employment status, we can reasonably expect women to account for the majority of layoffs. And since they account for 56% of new unemployment between February and June, female representation in specific industries, together with their increased likelihood of working part-time, explain women’s higher vulnerability to job losses compared to males.” 

Royal Bank of Canada Economics, July 2020 Analysis Report 

Alongside the higher unemployment rate, an alarming trend for women is falling out of the workforce entirely due to shouldering the burden of childcare. In the Women in the Workplace report, 76 percent of mothers with children under age 10 reported childcare as one of their top three challenges during COVID-19, compared to 54 percent of fathers with young children. 

Many working mothers have lost the support of childcare and school with the pandemic. It is also mothers who are most likely the one responsible for the majority of the housework and caregiving. In fact, mothers are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to be spending an extra three or more hours a day on housework and childcare. 

That works out to be the equivalent of 20 hours a week, or half a full-time job.

It makes sense that there is growing concern for the future; that progress toward gender parity might be lost if women fail to re-enter the workforce.

The future has silver linings

While the outlook does seem bleak, there is still reason to have optimism for the year to come. 

A new non-profit organization called The Prosperity Project (TPP) is working to help make sure that women leaving the workplace does not become normalized. The project is supported by 64 female leaders from across Canada and led by Pamela Jeffery, founder of the Women’s Executive Network and Canadian Board Diversity Council. 

The group has come up with five initiatives to help women moving forward: 

  1. Match male and female professionals with nonprofits that focus on women 
  2. Track household perspectives on the new economy
  3. Undertake and publish a national long-term prosperity study 
  4. Launch a modern Rosie the Riveter campaign to inspire Canadians to reset their personal and working lifestyle 
  5. Conduct and publish an annual gender-diversity data tracking initiative 

In addition, a 2020 report by Ryerson's Diversity Institute and the Public Policy Forum, supported by the Future Skills Centre, argues that the inclusion of women, especially diverse women populations, is central to Canada's recovery and growth strategy.

"We need to apply a gender and diversity lens across our skills and employment ecosystem and to ensure women are front and centre in the discussions of economic growth and innovation if Canada is to achieve its potential. COVID has taken a terrible toll but it has also disrupted old ways of doing things – whether in retail, or education or health care.  We need to take advantage of the disruption to accelerate innovation across sectors and to ensure women are core to driving change," said Wendy Cukier, founder of the Diversity Institute in a press release for the report.

Disruption brings change. But change, while scary and sometimes difficult, offers us the opportunity to innovate. And women are already creating some amazing change:

Kamala Harris was elected as the first woman vice president of the United States. 

A team led by Stephanie Wehner, at Delft University of Technology, is currently building a network that will connect four cities in the Netherlands entirely through quantum technology. The messages sent over their network will be unhackable.

Greta Thunberg, only 17 years old, was nominated to be TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year and is creating a worldwide movement for climate change.

The challenges for women at work in the foreseeable future look hard, yes. But as the inspirational Gina Carey says, “A strong woman looks a challenge dead in the eye and gives it a wink.” 

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