As they treat patients as front-line health and service workers, bear the brunt of child-care responsibilities, risk gender-based violence, and face economic uncertainty in low-paying precarious work, women are being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s according to several women’s rights advocates who argue that more support is needed for women who have already suffered greater job losses, increased risks to their health and safety, and diminished social services as the virus takes its toll.
Katherine Scott, a senior economist and the director of gender equality and public policy work for the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said that although everyone has been affected by the health crisis in one way or another, some groups have been harder hit than others.
“There’s this idea that we’re all in this together, but in many ways, it certainly is not an equal-opportunity pandemic,” she explained during a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca from Ottawa on Wednesday. “The people that are impacted most will always be the most marginalized.”
In this pandemic, Scott said that includes all women, but especially those women who are from racialized groups, newcomer communities, Indigenous women, and those with disabilities.
Andrea Gunraj, the vice-president of engagement for the Canadian Women’s Foundation, said the pandemic is exacerbating existing socioeconomic disparities and crippling social services providing care for these at-risk individuals.
“It’s impacting women in a particular way where you’re seeing the ones who are more at-risk are the ones who are least-supported,” she said.
While both Gunraj and Scott applauded the federal government for allotting funding for women’s shelters and non-profit charitable organizations, they said they would like them to look at the pandemic through a gender-based lens, also known as “gender-based analysis plus” or GBA+, to understand its impact on more than half of the Canadian population.
Dr. Nathan Stall, a geriatrician at Sinai Health System in Toronto, agreed that more attention should be given to gender-based differences during a public health emergency and that, too often, it’s overlooked.
“All of us are being affected by this, but I always think it’s important to recognize that women during a pandemic are really bearing the brunt of all this and I think that should not be ignored,” he said.
In March, women aged 25 to 54 years, their prime working years, lost more than twice the jobs (298,500) than men in the same age group (127,600), according to Statistics Canada. Nearly half of this decrease was among women working in part-time, often low-paying jobs in the service and care industries.
What’s more, women of all ages accounted for two-thirds (63%) of total job losses in the country that month, despite making up less than half of the workforce.
Even if they didn’t lose their jobs, 1.2 million women in Canada reported seeing at least half of their hours cut in March.
In mid-March, the reality of the virus’ spread in Canada set in and industries with predominantly female workforces, such as retail, food, and accommodation, were forced to abruptly close their doors and lay off staff in an effort to quell the outbreak.
According to Scott, with few exceptions, women have experienced the majority of job losses during the pandemic, and in some industries, which employ people like care providers, health-care technicians, and office support workers, they make up the “overwhelming” majority.
Historically, Scott said economic recessions tend to see marked downturns in the manufacturing, construction, and natural resources sectors, which are typically male-dominated.
“This time around, we’re really seeing, certainly in this initial wave of layoffs, that this is a ‘she-session’ as it’s being called,” she said.
Gunraj also noted that women are more likely to have part-time, precarious work with no sick leave or benefits and they’re also paid less than their male counterparts for the same jobs.
“This has led to this kind of gendered poverty that we see in Canada,” she explained. “With the work interruptions and the stoppages that we’re seeing now… this only intensifies women's already economically stressful situation.”
CARING AT HOME
To add to their economic woes, Scott said the closure of schools and daycares have left many women scrambling to take care of children while juggling work, whether that’s as an essential worker outside of the home or if they’re working remotely.
“We know from our studies in the past, women continue to disproportionately carry the burden of caring labour and domestic labour at home,” she said.
In many cases, Scott said women have had to leave their jobs in order to care for children or an ill family member at home during the pandemic.
Between February and March, the number of core-aged women (aged 25 to 54 years) who were not in the Canadian labour market grew substantially by 145,800 (10.5%).
In her research, Scott has noted the employment gap between men and women is a key indicator of gender equality in the country.
“Many of these women leaving the labour force will be involved in childcare and home schooling. Others will be caring for relatives who are ill. Will women return to the labour market—and in what capacity? Or will this crisis end up turning back the clock on gender equality?” she said.
RISK OF EXPOSURE
Women have been serving on the frontlines in the fight against the virus in their work in occupations involving the “5 Cs” – caring, clerical, catering, cashiering and cleaning. According to Statistics Canada, more than half of all female workers are employed in work in one of these sectors.
In fact, women represent more than 90 per cent of nurses, 75 per cent of respiratory therapists, and up to 90 per cent of Personal Support Workers (PSW) caring for seniors in long-term care homes and home care.
“The irony of this situation is that at the same time that women have greater responsibilities on them, they are at greater risk of being sick and getting ill, and also their families too, because then they go home, and they have that greater risk of passing it on to their families as well,” Gunraj said.
It’s not just care providers, either. Gunraj said because women are also more likely to be cleaners and grocery store cashiers or stocking shelves, they’re also facing an increased risk of infection due to their essential work.
Scott said the risks women in this type of work are taking is magnified by the inadequate provisions of personal protective equipment (PPE) they’ve received on the job.
“We labour for a long time and then a crisis of this magnitude hits, it really does reveal how the essential economy works, what kind of fault-lines run through this society, in this case, what kind of gender fault-lines, which groups are more impacted than others, and women have been at the forefront of this crisis in many ways,” Scott said.
Women shelters and helplines have been reporting a surge in requests for assistance from domestic violence victims who are spending more time at home with their abusers during self-isolation.
Gunraj said some of the support services her organization works with have said they have seen an increase in reporting violence to police, while others have actually seen a conspicuous decrease in people reaching out to them for assistance.
“This is concerning either way because we think the increase in support calls means that there’s more gender-based violence to worry about,” she said. “But then there also could be more gender-based violence, but people can’t reach out because they’re at home isolating with their abusers.”
Physical distancing measures and increased cleaning needs have also made it difficult for shelters to provide enough clean spaces and beds to meet the increased demand due to the pandemic.
Gunraj said those difficulties are compounded by the fact that these organizations, such as shelters and rape crisis centres, have been forced to close their doors or reduce their services because of a lack of resources.
“We’re really concerned about the well-being of the sector that addresses gender equality and gendered realities, because they've always been underfunded and always been kind of on the edge and now that I fear that they’re being pushed to a place where they may not be able to function in the coming months,” she said.
For its part, the federal government recently committed $40 million to Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE), up to $30 million of which would go towards the more than 500 women’s shelters and various sexual assault centres across the country.
The remaining $10 million is specifically earmarked for Indigenous women and children’s shelters.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government’s plan to provide $350 million to the country’s charities sector.
As a result of the pandemic, charities have been struggling to stay afloat without fundraising events and financial donations from donors who are hurting themselves.
While funding for the sector, which is largely populated by female workers, is a move in the right direction, Scott said it will likely be inadequate in the long-term given the spike in demand for services as a result of the economic recession.
Gunraj said these difficulties raise questions as to how charitable organizations that people rely on, particularly in times of crisis, are funded.
“Should it be charity or should it be actually be considered essential services that we fund all the time in response to need?” she said.
Scott said there is a real risk that women will lose ground in the gender equality gains they have made over the decades, in the economy and support services for example, if they’re not protected during the pandemic.
“In moments of crisis, it seems easy for female concerns to be pushed to the side and it's just a devastating impact,” she said.
“The ability to recover from these things really does hinge on women's well-being,” Gunraj added. “When women are doing well, everybody does well. When women are struggling, everybody struggles.”