Faster vaccination rates and encouraging economic signs, like patio dining and reopening malls, give hope that the new normal may not be far off. Yet, women — who bore the brunt of job losses, layoffs, reduced hours and child care during a year of COVID-19 lockdowns — worry what the return to a post-pandemic workforce will hold for them.
On Wednesday, the province took steps to directly address working women’s concerns in the new Ontario budget. Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy announced that the province will launch a gender equity task-force to study the economic barriers disproportionately faced by women and racialized people during the pandemic. In addition, the budget proposes a temporary 20 per cent top-up to the Childcare Access and Relief from Expenses (CARE) tax credit as well as a temporary jobs training tax credit for those seeking training and employment in a new industry. Bethlenfalvy also committed to creating more child care spaces.
But what else needs to be done?
Pamela Jeffery, founder of The Prosperity Project, an initiative that tracks COVID-19 economic impacts on women and girls, says women need to get back to work not only to help themselves but to shore up the country’s drooping financial health — but they can’t do it without supports.
“We can’t have an economic recovery if we have got huge numbers of women on the sidelines,” says Jeffery, who collaborates with more than 60 female leaders across Canada in the new Toronto-based not-for-profit organization.
The Prosperity Project recently released a national survey that found working mothers were “frozen” by their circumstances during the pandemic, had higher rates of anxiety, depression and stress than working fathers, and worried about life after lockdown.
“In order for us to have a recovery, we need to have jobs. We need to be creating jobs,” says Jeffery. “And in order for women to move into those jobs, which is part of the recovery, we need to have child care so women can get to work.”
Unlike some women, Stephanie Bergman didn’t have those worries when her maternity leave ended two months ago. Her return to work was supported emotionally and financially by her employer.
Bergman, a human resources consultant at Toronto-based Bright + Early, moved to Timmins temporarily with her husband and infant daughter so she could have help with child care while she worked. She says with options of flex time and “office-optional” at Bright + Early, she feels she does not have to separate being a mom from her work-life.
“I can bring my whole self to work,” Bergman says.
The Star contacted a number of women business experts and asked them for ideas to return and retain women in the workforce, whether they are salaried employees or risk-taking entrepreneurs.
Their answers ranged from small scale — such as a verbal check-in at the end of a day’s work, for example — to Canada-wide plans, such as a national child-care plan. Among other proposals: Flexible work hours, “danger pay” and mentorship programs.
The ideas and discussions are wide-ranging. Here are their thoughts:
Say goodbye to ‘9-to-5’?
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The experts found that working outside of the traditional 9-to-5 framework has been a boon for working parents, especially for mothers who disproportionately also had to juggle child-care needs when schools and daycares closed. The continued option of having flexible, asynchronous work hours should be a consideration if the work can still be done, says Nora Jenkins Townson, founder and principal at Bright + Early, a human resources consulting company.
“[Organizations] can ease people back into the workforce, in a number of different ways, so there is flex time, asynchronous work, so meaning that you don’t have to be online at the same time, from 9-to-5, as long as the work is getting done and there are many tools to do that,” says Jenkins Townson.
“Especially while school and child care are spotty and kind of on and off,” adds Jenkins Townson. “You can offer part-time then to ramp back up to full-time or a special kind of pandemic parental leave within the organization if they can afford that.”
She says she is not treating the working-from-home option as temporary in her own company.
“At Bright + Early we are able to offer flexible days, so somebody can go down to working three days or four days,” says Jenkins Townson. “But we do have a couple of parents on the team and everybody kind of finds their own kind of hack-together solutions, beyond us being a flexible company.”
The safety net of ‘danger pay’
Women need to have supports in place so they “can keep their work, keep their paid hours” and not be punished for having to take care of other unpaid responsibilities, says Andrea Gunraj, vice-president of public engagement for the non-profit Canadian Women’s Foundation.
She also supports the idea of “danger pay” or hazard pay for those who face risks in the workplace. Such a financial top-up was provided, outside of front-line health-care workers, for retail workers by companies such as Loblaws Companies Ltd. at the beginning of the pandemic but that extra pay stopped last summer.
Danger pay could also benefit those providing services from cleaning and custodial work to medical services outside of hospital settings.
“I think [danger pay] is really important for people to have, especially those at higher risk of viral contraction and we know that there are a lot of places that have very high risk,” says Gunraj. “I am thinking about people who are cleaning, people who are doing things like physiotherapy. It’s not necessarily directly in a hospital, doing COVID-related work.”
Break down barriers to mentorship and financing
The pandemic has disproportionately affected racialized business owners, especially Black women business owners.
Nadine Spencer, president of Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA), says that when we look at systemic racism and barriers in business, anti-racism training needs to be implemented “from the mailroom to the corporate boardroom.” She also stresses the need for “access to capital,” which she says is one of the greatest challenges facing Black women entrepreneurs.
“The solution has to be access to financing,” says Spencer, who is also CEO of global marketing and communications agency, Brand EQ. “I think that mentorship and access to networking is also a very important response to how do we reduce the barriers facing Black entrepreneurs and Black women entrepreneurs.”
Spencer says entrepreneurs should seek support from like-minded people. “At the BBPA, we run a program called ‘Boss-Women’ entrepreneurship training program. Each week we have 125 women who show up to talk about their business journey, their entrepreneurship journey and where they think they are failing or need support.”
The Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) launched a program on Wednesday for young Black entrepreneurs between the ages of 18-39 who are starting businesses. For the Black Entrepreneur Start-up Program, in partnership with Futurpreneur, RBC will provide financing for small business loans, mentorship programs and other business resources for up to two years
Spencer says this is an example of how access to mentorship and business support is crucial for Black entrepreneurs and therefore this contributes to an ongoing, overall economic recovery.
Alecia Aquino, director of business owner planning and women in business at the RBC, says this is a “foundation for the future” and will provide Black entrepreneurs with an “equitable opportunity.”
“This is just one step in a broader journey of helping Black communities have access to opportunities for economic advancement and prosperity,” says Aquino.
Install intersectional policy work: ‘humans first, workers second’
For working women, the care work at home has disproportionately fallen on them and men have become the dominant breadwinners during the pandemic. Organizations need to support working women’s needs and better understand them, says Chanel Grenaway-Mills, a consultant who works with non-profits and the public sector on intersectionality, equity and anti-Black racism.
One approach is for organizations to conduct policy analyses with an intersectional and gendered lens, she says.
Grenaway-Mills says right now workforce development has been defined by the mould of the “default, white male, or young male or white young women.”
“If we look at the health-care sector, we know that many of the nurses, PSWs and other front-line workers are from racialized communities,” says Grenaway-Mills. “[Organizations need to] look at the burden that [the work has] placed on [workers’] families … the fact that they were the ones at risk, it has a ripple effect. So, looking at things from a gendered lens and an intersectional lens is really important.”
Armine Yalnizyan, an economist and the Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers, says one of the pandemic’s employment-related consequences is that employers who are primarily men are seeing the importance of care work, whether it is paid or unpaid.
“So, everybody is starting to realize that, ‘oh yeah, we’re humans first and workers second’ and then they adapt to it differently,” says Yalnizyan.
“On the other side of the pandemic, we’re going to be dealing with massive labour shortages, so the employers that get it, that we need to balance our lives as well as our paid work will be the ones that can attract and retain the best employees.”
Yalnizyan says governments need to enforce policies within organizations, such as in the care sector, to implement regulations so workers in precarious jobs, which often fall in the care sector, such as long-term care, can be protected.
Since most care work has fallen on women, a government-funded child-care program is crucial for women to return to work along with financial help and business support.
“I have been saying since last March, no recovery without ‘she-covery’ and no ‘she-covery’ without child care,” says Yalnizyan. “Child care has got to be at the top of the list for the provincial government.
“It is not just about policy change,” Yalnizyan adds. “They talk about the blitzes but they don’t change anything in the wake of the blitz.”
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