International Women's Day: Can COVID-19 bring sea change to private sector, public policy?
TORONTO -- When Faye Pang became pregnant while working at Uber, the company had to scramble to put together a maternity leave policy. She was the first woman at the ridesharing firm in Canada who required it, she said, and they had no protocol in place. The approval came through on her last day at the office before going on leave.
Fast forward a few years, and Pang was applying for a new job with an accounting software company. Xero, fully aware of her pregnancy, hired her a week before she was due and immediately put her on their parental leave policy.
Pang says she has been extremely lucky: despite her two vastly different experiences around corporate parental leave preparedness, both companies were extremely supportive and responsive in accommodating her needs. But her experiences sparked a desire to become a vocal advocate for policies that support women in the workplace.
“It really shaped how I think about this, which is how important it is to be really thoughtful about these policies and support systems,” Pang, who recently wrapped up her maternity leave, told CTVNews.ca
This year, International Women’s Day takes on particular significance for many women amid the stark realities exposed by the pandemic. Many advocates hope the past year has created the necessary momentum and impetus to make meaningful and lasting changes that support women through the private sector and in public policy.
“I think COVID has usefully made it really plain that all of our work hinges on all of this underlying care work that has sort of been hidden, but now has been put in sharp relief,” says Kate Bezanson, an associate sociology professor and an associate dean of social sciences at Brock University.
A MOTHERHOOD PENALTY
COVID-19 has both exacerbated and accelerated the existing, systemic issues around women in the workforce this past year: Not only do women disproportionately work in industries that have been hit hardest during lockdown restrictions, they are often in sectors where working from home is not an option.
Women of colour in particular faced higher unemployment than white women, according to Statistics Canada data provided to Reuters. Meanwhile, three-quarters of the open positions in the professional, scientific, and technical services industries were filled by men between February and October, according to an RBC report. The latest round of winter lockdowns continue to hit women and youth the hardest, according to the January 2021 employment data.
Underpinning some of the dramatic shifts is the fact that many women also left the labour force altogether in order to take on another job at home – child care. Women between the ages of 20 and 24, and 35 and 39 in particular were exiting faster, the RBC report noted.
“Systemically, there are a lot of things that are making it very difficult for women to achieve that equality in the workplace,” Pang said.
And it’s not just Canada. The impact on women in the U.S. has been staggering. Employment data for December, for example, showed that women accounted for all the job losses. In addition, more Black and Latina women worked in jobs that lacked paid sick leave. The New York Times documented the crisis facing American mothers in “The Primal Scream”, which looks at the way the pandemic has upended any illusions of work/life balance. The U.K.’s The Independent calls it “The pandemic of inequality” and writes that it has set back women’s rights by decades.
“It’s really as a result of those care responsibilities. And what it does is not just negate the equality gains of the last 40 years, but the longer women are out of the labour market … there is a very quick perceived skill atrophy. Pipelines to advancement ... all start to be put in jeopardy. And not just right now. It’s 10 years from now,” Bezanson told CTVNews.ca.
“So the risks are both immediate and long-term.”
CHANGING GOVERNMENT POLICIES
Canada will have a massive deficit to contend with when the dust settles, making a post-COVID social policy that involves investing in a federalized and robust child-care strategy crucial to moving forward, Bezanson said.
“We're going to need women -- their household spending power -- which is a huge driver of the economy. Without that, we can’t get back,” she said, adding that there has never been this level of consensus for a national child-care system -- from central bank governors, the government, chambers of commerce, business associations, and employers.
“We need to have an even recovery. Those kinds of choke points and that kind of economic potential for gender regressive economic recovery doesn’t respect provincial or territorial borders. So we need to be investing in [childcare] and building that … And then we'll have those multiplier effects in terms of enabling women to be in the labour market.”
There is too much risk in an uneven recovery, she said, adding that the devastating and “lethal consequences” of underinvesting in care has been playing out in Canada’s long-term care system.
She also argues that a robust child-care system is significantly better than simply handing out money to Canadian families for caregiving. A family receiving a $6,000 transfer or tax credit for example, could spend it on cheaper child care, for example, which is more likely to stimulate low-wage, female-precarious child-care employment, which merely exacerbates the inequity and a large driver of what has caused the current disparities in the labour force.
Funding the services instead, and building a quality system that is accessible and affordable creates a more lasting solution that addresses the levers and blockages for women in the labour market, she said.
CHANGING THE CORPORATE CULTURE
But change must also come from within a corporate environment as well, advocates say. Policies that both support and destigmatize workplace challenges from mental health care to parental leave and caregiving are essential to bringing more equity to the workplace.
Otherwise, it falls to leaders within the organization on how the needs of their female employees are met -- uncertainty that can create enormous stress for caregiving parents.
“One of the things that COVID has shown is of course we still have very gender rigid divisions of unpaid caregiving -- and work cultures can disrupt or enhance those,” said Bezanson.
Automatic assumptions should not be made by employers that only women will be taking on caregiving responsibilities, experts say. This messaging can be made clear by offering flexibility to all members of the team, with a more proactive, thoughtful and formal policy that could alleviate some of the disparities and stress.
Creating inclusive benefits and support for family planning are key, particularly for startups who may be busy focused on growth, Pang said. Having senior leaders in the company serve as models for employees, talking openly about parenting challenges, using those benefits and applying that flexibility on themselves also sends a message to employees that these policies are a part of the company’s workplace culture.
For parental leave, some experts note that birth mothers often take more leave because the amount a company will top up for the other parent is very low or even non-existent. This can also prevent some women who would like to return to work earlier from doing so because their partner can not take additional leave without making a financial sacrifice.
Companies should also not assume that fathers only want to take two weeks off, for example, Bezanson added, explaining that it is less stressful for employees to negotiate down from a maximum amount of time off than to negotiate for more time.
Policies built on unconscious biases can also prompt some women to make self-limiting career decisions because they worry or assume the company may not consider them.
Pang believes workplace flexibility is paramount, and having robust policies benefits that support that flexibility -- instead of having employees fight for them -- are also great tools for retention and acquisition, pointing to her own experience.
“I was just blown away by that, and I think it is a really good example of a company that's being very forward thinking about how they think about support systems and policies that allow them to have a diverse workforce,” she said.