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June 25 2020

Dive Deeper: The Gendered Impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our lives in countless ways – physical distancing, financial stress, and job losses. The collective response to flatten the curve has led to severe economic hardship for both businesses and the families they serve and employ.

Emerging evidence shows that the economic hardship is felt more acutely by certain segments of the population, and particularly based on gender. Due to this trend, academics and advocates – including recent recommendations made by the YWCAs of Alberta – are growing louder in their calls to place gender-based considerations at the heart of our recovery strategy. To understand how gender is structuring this public health crisis and what we need to do to recover, let’s dive deeper.

A Compounding Crisis for Women

More job losses and more unpaid work

As unemployment rose in our ‘new normal,’ Statistics Canada began to paint a picture of exactly how this crisis was unfolding.

In Canada, similar to what research from the Kaiser Family Foundation concludes in the United States, public and private work generally varies by gender. According to analysis by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, women accounted for the majority of losses in the sectors hit hardest as the pandemic began to unfold; for example large parts of the retail, food and accommodation, information, culture and recreation, and educational services sectors. The same report detailed that other sectors felt the crunch too: care providers, health care technicians, and office support workers were all laid off in large numbers.

In addition, the closure of schools and daycares meant that children were staying at home full-time. This caused an increase in the amount of private, unpaid care work – such as childcare and home-schooling. This work typically falls on women to perform compared to men – women spent an average of one hour per day caring for children in 2015 compared to 30 minutes for men. Some, such as Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg in a recent interview with Vox, have described this as the “double double-shift.” “Women with full-time jobs, a partner, and children report [spending] a combined 71 hours a week on child care, elder care, and household chores — compared with 51 hours for men,” she said.

The data are clear that women have found themselves working harder and laid off in greater numbers. Those women who have been able to work are also more often on the frontlines.

Unable to Stay Home

Statistics Canada reports that as of 2015, “around 56 per cent of women were employed in occupations involving the ‘5 Cs’: caring, clerical, catering, cashiering and cleaning.” New analysis by the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF) puts a finer point on it: the “vast majority” of nurses, medical lab technicians, respiratory therapists, and personal support workers are all women.

The disproportionate amount of women involved in these care positions means that, as Jim Stanford, Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work, points out, women less frequently have the privilege to stay or work from home compared to men – we depend on these workers, who are usually, to deliver the care needed to combat COVID-19, and so they simply cannot stay at home.

With fewer jobs that are more often on the frontlines and a greater share of unpaid work, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to worsen further because of the income position many women start from.

Lower income and less support

The gender wage gap in Canada has been long-standing and according to Statistics Canada, as of 2018, women aged 25 to 54 earn $0.87 for every $1.00 that men aged 25 to 54 earn.

Predictably with less income on average, women more often find themselves in economically challenging circumstances compared to men. Angus Reid polling shows that as of 2018, women accounted for 60 per cent of those who are “struggling” economically – Canadians who routinely cannot pay a utility bill, need to borrow money for the essentials, or cannot buy new clothes when needed. The Canadian Women's Foundation notes that these Canadians typically rely on support services and public goods such as food banks, community centres, and libraries, all of which have been closed– as media reports have detailed for food banks, facing supply shortages – in response to the pandemic.

The Road to Recovery

What do these unequal consequences and burdens mean for our eventual recovery? We have the opportunity to put in place public and organizational policies that ensure equality and help to remedy many of the structural economic disadvantages that occur due to gendered differences.

Among the many solutions that advocates and academics note, three initiatives that could begin that work include:

Gender Based Analysis (GBA):

Gender based analysis would begin this work by actively – in both organizational and government policies – considering gender in the design, analysis, and implementation of any policy. The Government of Canada provides one such example of this. Instituted in 1995 as part of Canada’s ratification of the United Nations’ Beijing Platform for Action, GBA is an “analytical process used to assess how diverse groups of women, men and non-binary people may experience policies, programs and initiatives.” Additional elements to this analytical process (the ‘+’) in GBA+ now include active recognition and consideration of the variation people may experience in policies, programs, and initiatives due to both their gender identity and expression and other social identities such race, ethnicity, religion, or age.

Policies that acknowledge unpaid work:

Organizations’ business practices need to account for the reality that unpaid work that falls to women more often than men. Introducing more flexible work arrangements could make this a reality. Examples of flexible work arrangements include: virtually working from home, flexible working hours, job sharing, and switching shifts, among many others. The key point, as UNICEF, UN Women, and the International Labour Organization all explain, is that the policy aims to “support workers to meet personal or family needs and achieve better work-life balance.”

Expanding access to childcare:

Reforms and expansion to the childcare system, as advocates such as the Women's Centre of Calgary suggest, can reduce the amount of unpaid work that women perform, and therefore allow for greater and more paid economic opportunities. Easy, flexible, and universal access to a 24 hour system of care; income-dependent payment schemes, and full subsidization for low income parents are the main reforms that would lead to a system that creates more opportunities for women with children.

Moving forward

It’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed existing fundamental vulnerabilities in our social, political and economic systems, particularly in terms of gendered differences. This is our opportunity to harness fresh perspectives and innovative thinking to improve our home lives, our workplaces, our politics, and our communities.