Flexible work arrangements and more affordable child-care may be behind record-high employment rates recorded last year among Canadian women, experts said after federal jobs data showed a big bump in the rate of working mothers.

Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey, published last week, offered fresh evidence that women in Canada are bouncing back from the job losses that disproportionately affected them when the COVID-19 pandemic set in.

The survey reported that 81 per cent of Canadian women aged 25 to 54 were employed on average over the course of 2022. That’s the highest on record since 1976 and higher than the last pre-pandemic year in 2019.

StatsCan also noted an uptick in the employment rate for women with children under age six. Mothers with young kids were working at a rate of 75.2 per cent in 2022, a rate 3.3 per cent higher than what was recorded in 2019.

Carmina Ravanera, senior research associate at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Gender and the Economy, said fears of a “she-cession” were well-founded based on data available earlier in the pandemic. But she said the pandemic-driven rise of flexible and remote work arrangements has likely been particularly beneficial for female workers, as women tend to take on more caregiving responsibilities within families.

“We researchers have been talking for years about how important flexible work is for women,” Ravanera said in a phone interview with BNNBloomberg.ca. “It allows them to have that time to care give while also being in the paid labour force, and they don't have to work the nine to five, or always be in an office.”

Parisa Mahboubi, senior policy analyst with the C.D. Howe Institute, also highlighted the rise of flexible work as a key factor behind a higher women’s employment rate, adding that flexible work for men may have freed male partners up to contribute more to child-care duties, giving mothers more support as they re-enter the workforce.

The tight labour market in 2022 also offered an opening for women to negotiate for better-paying jobs or starting in new fields of work, Mahboubi added. Some women may have used remote learning opportunities during the pandemic to gain new employment skills, she said, and the higher cost of living could have motivated some families to seek a second income.

“For some families it could be just one or two factors, for some others, it could be a combination of all,” she said.

Ravanera and Mahboubi both pointed to the policy shift towards cheaper child-care in Canada last year as another factor behind a higher women’s employment rate. Fees were reduced last year as the federal Liberal government began phasing in its affordable child-care plan, with an end goal of reaching $10-a-day care in 2025.

“I think that definitely played a role and we'll probably, hopefully, see more of that in the coming years as reductions increase,” Ravanera said.

Silvia Song of Vaughan, Ont., returned to work part-time as a manager at a meal subscription company just over a year ago in December 2021, when her children were aged three and two.

Song was eager to start working again to bring more adult routines back into her life. She said the change has been positive, though much of her pay goes towards covering child-care, which she described as “key” for her being able to return to work.

“My kids were driving me nuts. I need to talk to adults,” she said in a phone interview. “Basically, all my money goes to my nanny, but it gets me out of the house.”

Song also credited her flexible, mostly-work-from-home arrangement and her understanding boss as factors behind her smooth transition back into the workforce. Her husband runs his own business, taking some pressure off her need to earn income for essentials.

“I'm very thankful that I'm not in a position where if I miss a shift, I can't pay for groceries,” she said.

Ravanera cautioned that the quality of women’s jobs and inequalities like gender pay differences should be considered when reading the jobs data, noting that women are still more likely to be in precarious or part-time jobs.

Mahboubi said persistent gaps between women’s and men’s earnings other employment criteria require more scrutiny, especially as Canada faces a shortage of workers.

“All these gaps have declined over time, which is good news, but still, we can do more in the labour market to make sure that women participate fully,” she said.