Diversity in the workforce is a driver of economic growth

It was one year ago last week that the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic.  In recognition of this sobering one-year anniversary, March 11th has been designated as a National Day of Observance to honour the people who have lost their lives and everyone who has been affected by Covid.

So far, nearly 900,000 Canadians have been infected and, sadly, some 22,000 have lost their lives.  No doubt, this has been a tragedy on so many fronts.  We’ve changed the way we work, shop, connect and interact with one another.  We’ve had to make sacrifices – individually and collectively – for the greater good and the overall wellbeing of our fellow citizens.  Through all the pain and struggles, Canadians have been resilient, and we’ve witnessed first-hand the power of kindness and compassion.

One segment of our population that has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic are women.  Last week, as we celebrated women and girls on the occasion of International Women’s Day, the Prime Minister reminded us that “this crisis has created a she-cession and has threatened to roll back the hard-fought social and economic progress of all women.”

Indeed, the data speaks for itself.  One year into this pandemic, women, especially those from marginalized groups, continue to experience financial hardship and adversity in reintegrating the workforce.

In the first two months of the pandemic, 1.5 million women lost their jobs.  As a result, their participation rate in the labour force dropped to its lowest level in three decades.  As reported by RBC, “before the crisis, these women held a wide variety of jobs, but there was a common thread.  Many worked, for modest pay, in the low-skilled service jobs that helped keep the broader Canadian economy humming along.”  Almost half a million women have yet to return to work as of January.  What’s more, nearly 100,000 women over the age of 20 have left the labour market entirely – this is ten times more than men.

Unsurprisingly, women are often the ones who sacrifice their careers for their children. It was no different during the pandemic. New data shows that women left their jobs to care for toddlers or school-aged children twelve times more than men.

All these numbers remind us that women, more than men, are often forced to work minimum wage-paying jobs, in volatile industries and in unpredictable circumstances.  In fact, about 50% of young employed women work in either retail or accommodation and food, compared to 35% of young men.  We’ve known this for decades, and yet we have been unable to reverse this trend or, at the very least, come up with a more equitable approach to long-term, permanent work for millions of Canadians in these industries.

Governments at all levels must make a concerted effort to address this crisis.  To say that women play a pivotal role in our economy is an understatement.  Naturally, I was delighted to learn that the Government of Canada recently created a Task Force on Women in the Economy to advance gender equity and address systemic barriers and inequities faced by women, particularly in the wake of the pandemic.

I hope the Task Force will take an in-depth look at how we ensure that women join (or rejoin) the workforce and have equal access to fair wages and equal opportunities for benefits, promotions and salary raises.  We must also find new ways of providing skills development and training opportunities for women, many who work in sectors that are digitizing and automatizing at warp speed.

Many policy analysts also agree that affordable and accessible childcare should be a priority as we consider a post-pandemic, feminist recovery.  Fortunately, the Prime Minister has committed to making a significant, sustained, and long-term investment to create a Canada-wide early learning and childcare system.  Such an investment would not only benefit women, but families, low-income earners, vulnerable populations, and our youth too.

However, all the money in the world will not solve this problem.  What we really need is a detailed framework with clear targets, identifiable actions, and performance indicators.  The Task Force has an important mandate that could influence future public policies that will have an impact on our entire society.  I am hopeful it will provide the federal government and provinces a roadmap to address these urgent matters that has been neglected for far too long.

As always, I hope everyone is keeping safe.  Spring is around the corner and we have much to be hopeful for as vaccines are being administered across the country.

The Honourable Tony Loffreda, CPA  Independent Canadian Senator (Quebec)



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