Working Women in Canada Left Behind During COVID-19 Pandemic

By Catherine Skrzypinski August 2, 2021
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a female doctor with a surgical mask that has the Canadian flag on it

​The COVID-19 pandemic has set working women in Canada back significantly as the female labor-force participation rate is at its lowest level in 30 years, according to the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC).

According to a March 2021 report by RBC, nearly half a million Canadian women who left the workforce during the pandemic have not returned to work, while more than 200,000 women slipped into the ranks of the long-term unemployed.

Armine Yalnizyan, an economist with the Atkinson Foundation in Toronto, coined the term "she-cession" in 2020 to describe the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in the Canadian workforce.

"This crisis has created a she-cession and has threatened to roll back the hard-fought social and economic progress of all women," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in March 2021.

Jobs hardest hit by closures during the pandemic—such as child care, education, hospitality, restaurants and tourism—often are filled by women, explained Tina Strehlke, CEO at Minerva BC, a nonprofit in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, dedicated to advancing women in leadership.

As companies across Canada prepare for a post-pandemic workforce, business leaders should keep in mind some of the positive changes the response to the pandemic brought forward, such as maintaining flexible work schedules for women who choose to work from home, while continuing to advocate for child and elder care, Strehlke noted.

Employers must address the pandemic's mental health toll on women, stated Lisa Durante, managing principal of LDI Consulting and co-lead of Ellevate Network in Toronto. "Rates of depression and anxiety are rising." They're nearly double for Canadian mothers and higher for mothers who are Black, Indigenous or other women of color.

"Companies looking to return their women employees to the workplace—and maximize their talents when they get there—will need to consider how they can support women from a mental health and well-being perspective," she added.

Lack of Canadian Women in Tech

The pandemic has stalled the career growth of women in Canada's technology sector, according to a March 2021 survey by SAP Canada.

Humaira Ahmed, CEO at Locelle, a networking and mentorship platform for women in tech in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, noted that 1 in 4 women have considered stepping back from their careers due to the pandemic's demands. "Women in executive positions are really struggling," she added.

Women are underrepresented in Canada's tech sector, as they comprise only 30 percent of the nation's technology workforce, stated Humi's 2020 Canadian HR Benchmark report.

Overcoming Other Obstacles

The pandemic isn't the only obstacle for women in the Canadian workplace.

Women are not encouraged to become leaders the same way men are, Strehlke said. Employers should recognize bias holds all women back in the workplace.

Women need to realize the path to leadership is not linear, noted Karlyn Percil, CEO of KDPM Consulting Group in Toronto. "Their journey will be riddled with both systemic and structural barriers," she said. Female leaders advise women who want to reach the C-suite level in Canada to pursue the following avenues:

  • Create a support network, such as building relationships across an organization and finding a mentor.
  • Invest in leadership training and coaching to hone decision-making skills and learn how to effectively manage employees.
  • Learn how to negotiate for a higher salary and flexible work arrangements during a job offer. 
  • Join a nonprofit board to gain experience in board governance.
  • Take strategic risks for professional growth, like applying for a stretch job to accelerate professional development.

"For women looking to elevate their career to the C-suite, networking is critical," Durante said. "Find a group of peers who are equally ambitious. They can show their support by offering their mentorship, sponsorship and connections—this is a game changer for professional women."

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

[Want to learn more? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

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