Canadian women drove a pandemic shift into higher-paying jobs: RBC report
Canadian women’s employment has rebounded since the losses of the early COVID-19 pandemic, but workforce gaps between women and men persist and child care is a significant sticking point, according to a new report.
Authors of the C.D. Howe Institute report titled ‘Juggling Act: Women, Work and Closing the Gaps with Men’ recommended flexible work options and accessible, affordable child care as options to help address Canada’s workplace gender imbalance.
“Reducing disparities in gender participation and employment rates and encouraging women to work in in-demand and high-paying jobs would help mitigate aging’s impact on Canada’s labour force growth, address labour and skills shortages, and strengthen the economy,” Tingting Zhang, one of the report’s authors, said in written statement.
“This requires encouraging greater labour force participation and removing employment barriers for women who wish to work, especially older women and those with children.”
The report, released Tuesday, looked at Canadian women’s labour force participation before and after the pandemic.
During Canada’s “deepest, but also shortest downturn on record” from March to the end of April 2020, women’s employment in the country fell by more than 17.6 per cent, seeing more than 1.6 million women leave the workforce. Job losses were more significant for women than men because they disproportionately worked in sectors affected by COVID-19 shutdowns like the service industry, tourism, education and child care. Women are also more likely to take on caregiving duties, the report noted.
Child care was a major factor in the gender employment patterns. The biggest decline in labour participation was among women with school-aged children, and the gender employment gap was largest for parents with young children.
Women’s employment had bounced back and made a full recovery by September 2021. As of February, women’s employment had exceeded February 2020 levels by five per cent. Women had also switched into different industries, with fewer women working in food services and accommodation, and more in professional and technical services – “however, these shifts did not make a significant improvement in industrial and occupational gender imbalances” compared 2019.
Despite improvements since the employment losses of 2020, the researchers noted lasting gaps in employment statistics between Canadian women and men.
It noted that the employment gap has narrowed over the last several decades, but women’s labour force participation has “plateaued” since the beginning of the 21st century. Women’s employment rose to 62 per cent in the early 2000s from 45.7 per cent in the 1970s. But women’s participation rate was stuck at 61.5 per cent in 2022, and the labour force participation gap between genders was at eight percentage points in 2022.
The participation gap is largest for women aged 55 and older, according to the report. Women are also overrepresented in the part-time workforce, and child care remains a barrier to full-time work.
Among women who aren’t working, personal and family responsibilities have been cited as a main reason keeping them out of the workforce, and women working part time reported that child care was the main reason they are not able to work full time.
There is also a large workplace participation gap between men and women between the ages of 25 and 54 with children. The gap is largest at 18.4 percentage points for people who have children aged five years old and younger.
However, the report highlighted “good news” as there were noticeable improvements for working mothers in 2022, and cited research from the Bank of Canada that suggested federal policies with universal child-care targets helping more mothers enter the workforce.
The “child-care factor” keeping part-time employed women from full-time jobs was lowest in Quebec, which has had subsidized child care since 1997, “highlighting the role of accessing affordable child care in women’s employment decisions.”
RECOMMENDATIONS: CHILD CARE, FLEXIBLE WORK AND STEM TRAINING
The C.D. Howe researchers zeroed in on three recommended areas to boost women’s workforce participation: flexible work arrangements, affordable and accessible child care and skills training to bring women into STEM fields and trades.
They noted that labour shortages have been challenging efforts to scale up affordable child-care offerings across Canadian provinces, and recommended funding to raise wages for early childhood educators in order to attract and retain them in the field. It also suggested employers offer workplace-based child care to attract more woman workers.
Flexible work arrangements like remote work and flexible hours would also help retain women, the report said, and help people in caregiving roles thrive in the workplaces. It would also help improve employment numbers for older women who may want to work reduced hours, the report added, which could be a boon to businesses looking to fill job vacancies.
“It is important to continue applying a gender lens to designing social programs and labour market policy, post-pandemic,” the report said. “Investments in the labour market outcomes of women are essential to Canada’s continuous prosperity and inclusive growth.”