Are Women F*cked?
Of the many truths the pandemic has exposed about Canada, the utter lack of value we place on women, our work, and our well-being is one of the ugliest.
In the chaotic early days of the pandemic, when most of us didn’t know what the hell was going on, when we thought we’d be back in the office and back to normal in two weeks, Pamela Jeffery had an unsettling hunch. “I had this sinking feeling that last week of March that women were going to bear the brunt,” she told me. Jeffery would know — she’s the founder of the Toronto-based Women’s Executive Network, an organization devoted to the advancement of women in the workplace, with more than 22,000 members in Canada, the U.K., and Ireland. So she emailed 70 women in leadership positions across the country asking if they were similarly concerned. Their response was unanimous: Yes.
To say that Jeffery and her high-powered pals were correct is, unfortunately, a monumental understatement. COVID-19 has had an outsized impact on women, disproportionately affecting everything from our mental health to our job security to our physical safety. We’re underemployed, doing more at home, are at greater risk of contracting the virus than men, and are facing higher rates of abuse. We’re also lonelier, more stressed out, and drinking more than ever. For many of us, our ability to cope with it all has crumbled. Of the many truths the pandemic has exposed about this country, the utter lack of value we place on women, our work, and our well-being is one of the ugliest. The problems we’re facing aren’t just momentary setbacks — they’ll have long-lasting repercussions if we don’t address them now. So the question is: Are women f*cked?
It sure seems like it. There’s the never-ending stream of headlines declaring how the pandemic has set women’s equality back by decades. The New York Times called the recession a “shecession.” And most recently, UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia told the BBC, “Everything we worked for, that has taken 25 years, could be lost in a year.”
Racialized women have been the first to feel these losses, not that you can tell by most mainstream media coverage in Canada. “You would think that the women who had it hardest in the last nine months have been women who are lawyers whose children’s school is closed,” says Marina Adshade, a professor of economics at UBC who co-authored a 2020 report for the BC Women’s Health Foundation titled “Unmasking Gender Equality.” As Adshade points out, “white women have such a voice in this country, their needs are very much what’s been heard.”
It’s not that any of us are having a fun time right now but that some of us are more screwed than others. While the pandemic is stretching the pre-existing gap between men and women, it’s also widening the chasm between privileged white women and their racialized, gender-diverse, disabled, and otherwise marginalized peers. If the pandemic has uncovered how little Canadians care about Canadian women, then what it’s also shown us about our treatment of these groups reveals a far more sinister reality, one no vaccine will fix.
COVID came for our jobs, and it’s not giving them back
Let’s begin with the obvious: money. By May, Pamela Jeffery had identified job losses and the need to show women’s contribution to the overall economy as a top priority and had gathered 61 other women leaders from across the country to form the Prosperity Project, a not-for-profit focused on addressing the pandemic’s titanic impact on our finances. The organization — which enlisted Liberal MP Marci Ien, former B.C. Premier Christy Clark, and Paulette Senior, CEO and President of the Canadian Women’s Foundation — aims to “roll up our sleeves and do something about it,” says Jeffery.
There’s a lot to do.
For starters, women have had it worse than men when it comes to jobs. In April, our participation in the labour force dropped from just over 61% to 55% for the first time since the 1980s, with 1.5 million Canadian women having lost their jobs in the first two months of the pandemic, according to RBC. Women, who work in some of the industries hit hardest (food service, retail, healthcare, tourism, and social assistance), accounted for slightly more than half of all early job losses, and less than half of job gains in May and June. Since then, we’ve struggled more than men to re-enter the workforce. Between February and October of last year, 20,600 Canadian women left the workforce while 68,000 men joined it.
The winter lockdowns only made things worse. Some women gave up looking for work and many scaled back hours or dropped out of the workforce voluntarily. We’ve also been less likely to hunt for new jobs when we’re unemployed than men, partially because women-dominated industries are taking longer to rebound than male-dominated manufacturing jobs. Working mothers cut back hours or left their jobs completely in order to take care of their kids, with schools and daycares closed for long stretches of time, or because families no longer felt safe having their children enrolled in in-person learning. It’s a trend that’s due to the pay gap — women in heterosexual relationships are more likely to earn less than their partners and therefore are more likely to scale back work when one parent is needed at home — and one that will further exacerbate that gap.
Racialized women are even worse off. In November, the unemployment rate for women of colour was 10.5% compared to 6.2% for white women. This winter, racialized Canadians have suffered markedly higher rates of unemployment than white Canadians, according to a January report from Statistics Canada. Why is this happening? In two words: systemic racism. Racialized women are more likely to be paid less and work in minimum wage jobs (they make up the vast majority of personal care workers) that have been impacted by the pandemic. They’re also less likely to hold positions of power within the corporate world, don’t make as much as their white colleagues, and are more likely to be the first on the chopping block.
“These women are the ones that we have depended on during this pandemic to be able to buy groceries, to be able to have appropriate responses to our healthcare needs, to teach our children,” says Paulette Senior of the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “They’re the ones who’ve been on the frontlines doing this work. They were already experiencing the gender pay gap, some were actually working poor. And the pandemic has deepened this.”
It doesn’t help that Canadians tend to see racism as an issue, but not our issue. A reality that a July study from HR tech company Morneau Shepell makes abundantly clear: 70% of us think racism is a problem in Canada, but only 20% of us think it’s a problem in our workplace. (FYI: 62% of Black Canadians surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that racism is a problem in their workplace.) “As Canadians, we have a particular way of viewing issues around race, and we think it’s really an issue for our neighbours to the south,” says Senior. “Black women, Indigenous women, racialized women have been sounding the alarm for years. But the pandemic has really brought it to the fore, and I think that we have a responsibility now to be able to respond to them.”
Another group that’s been effed over when it comes to work: young women. “I don’t think people are aware that those who’ve lost their jobs aren’t mostly women in their 30s and 40s. It’s mostly really young women,” says Adshade, the economics prof. In January, Stats Can reported that young women (aged 15 to 24) were furthest away from their pre-pandemic employment levels than any other group and that they led part-time job losses.
While the lack of job opportunities is a frightening reality, young women have years, decades, to find work, settle into their careers, and build capital. (As Adshade explains, older women who’ve lost their jobs who will have a much harder time reentering the workforce.) And while this logic seems as sturdy as a pair of UGG Ultra Minis, what it feels like to face an almost impenetrable job market in your early twenties is another, wobblier story, one with serious mental health implications. The transition from the comfy, albeit sleep-deprived, confines of school to the real world is a scary one. But for the thousands of young Canadians graduating from post-secondary schools this April (and last), it will be an almost impossible one. It’s not that they’re failing to launch, it’s that the ocean has completely dried up. And those in their early twenties who’ve been laid off barely had a sheepskin-lined boot in the door in the first place.
Women are in the midst of a mental health crisis
There are dozens of studies showing that women are experiencing higher rates of both depression and anxiety, and as the pandemic has dragged on, things have gotten worse. (See: everything I’ve written in this piece so far.) On top of being more likely to take on the additional burdens of caregiving on the home front, women are at a higher risk of contracting COVID on the frontlines. It’s not surprising then that a January study from market-research firm Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies found almost half of women (43.7%) describe their mental health as bad or very bad compared to 28.2% of men. The study breaks down the results by age, showing that women aged 18 to 34 report the highest rates of poor mental health than any other group.
For young women, it’s not just the bleak job market, it’s that plus the loss of major life milestones (the graduations, proms, parties, and convocations), not to mention socialization of any form at a time when your social life is a pivotal part of your identity and well-being. Young women have reported the highest rates of loneliness over the course of the pandemic. “They really can’t connect with people as much as they want to, and that connection is really important,” says Dr. Donna Ferguson, a clinical psychologist at the Work Stress and Health Program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. “Younger women are really feeling that piece, especially if they’re living alone and don’t have a family around them.”
If you’ve read this far, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the mental health toll on racialized Canadians has been especially brutal this year. Black women in particular are dealing not just with the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected their health, but a news cycle that, starting with the killing of George Floyd by police, and continuing up to the riot on the Capitol and beyond, has highlighted the violent reality of anti-Black racism in North America.
“Being a woman of colour, you have that extra stress, racial stress,” says Ferguson, who is Black. “You might be hyper-vigilant, worrying about who’s out to get you, and this might feel like paranoia. But in reality, it’s not. So you're not just dealing with a pandemic, you’re dealing with all these other pieces that were really historically there, but now they’re compounded.” Ferguson points to how microaggressions can become even more toxic during a pandemic, increasing low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, and worthlessness. Microaggressions are “something that we should really be thinking about and paying attention to, because it comes up quite a bit and can really negatively impact someone’s ability to cope.”
Speaking of coping, women are drinking more than ever. Even before the pandemic, this trend was concerning, says Dr. Samantha Wells, senior director of the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at CAMH, but the lockdown has made things worse, with 22.6% of us saying we now binge-drink. Combine the normalization of drinking on social media and the marketing of wine to women, especially mothers, with the stresses of the past year, and you have a perfect storm.
“When you create a pattern — when you start drinking to ease certain stresses — then breaking those patterns may become very difficult,” says Wells, adding that alcohol can begin to change how you think. “You might start, for example, towards the end of the day, craving that next drink and that starts to control you.” It doesn’t help, adds Wells, that despite lockdowns, alcohol is cheaper and more readily available — liquor stores continue to operate, restaurateurs are selling their overstock bottles, and consumers are ordering direct from distilleries, importers, and wineries, sometimes at deeply discounted prices.
The increased risks for vulnerable populations
The pandemic has compounded other hardships, too. “The social and economic challenges and inequalities that we already face as women are exacerbated,” says Farrah Khan, one of the country’s leading gender justice advocates. One of the groups she worries about is single mothers. “Before the pandemic, we knew that one third of single-parent women-led households faced food insecurity,” says Khan. “We also know that they’re facing housing insecurity…. [They are] facing job loss at exorbitant rates. So what we’re seeing across the board is things that were already concerning are now really concerning.”
Khan also worries about women in abusive households and relationships. In April, Statistics Canada found that one in 10 Canadian women were very or extremely concerned about the possibility of violence in the home. It’s a stat Khan says she feels in her gut. Economic insecurity is one reason women choose to stay with abusers, a reality the pandemic has worsened. “We’re in a dire moment right now,” she says. “Shelters, because of COVID restrictions, are unable to operate at full capacity, so women are being turned away. Women are staying in households that are unsafe. Children are now staying in households that are unsafe.” Disturbingly, more babies are being treated for serious head traumas and fractures since the fall, says Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
Khan runs Consent Comes First, Ryerson University’s sexual assault centre, and when she looks at the number of young women who’ve lost their jobs or are unable to work, she sees an additional problem: The highest number of domestic and sexual assaults occur against women ages 15 to 24. “[The poor job market] is going to make it even more difficult to get out of a violent situation, to be able to safely leave to go get housing,” says Khan. That April Stats Can study found that this generation was the most concerned about violence at home. And then there’s the long-term impacts, says Khan: “The erosion of skills will further exaggerate the gender-wage gap that existed prior to the pandemic.”
So where do we go from here?
For his part, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dropped his favourite eff-word, promising his government’s pandemic recovery plan will be a feminist one (albeit with few details on what that entails). So what should a feminist recovery look like? And, given how equity efforts tend to benefit white women, how do we ensure all women are part of it?
I posed this question to the experts I spoke with. Step one, they said, is to get data. Canada has been exceptionally bad at tracking race-based data. While we’ve ignored the inequalities racialized women have been experienced for decades, cold, hard numbers are harder to reject. “We have always known that these groups of women have been left behind… but without folks in decision-making positions actually taking notice or listening,” says Senior.
One of the Prosperity Project’s five key initiatives is to collect gender diversity data in the corporate world. “Unless we measure, then we can’t manage the changes that are required in order to ensure that our top jobs are held by the best and the brightest,” says Jeffrey. “Traditionally, the best and the brightest have thought to be mostly almost all white. And that is unacceptable to Canadians now.” (Here’s hoping, anyway.)
My experts also pointed to flexible universal childcare, that will ensure not only 9 to 5ers keep working but help shift workers find care during irregular hours. They spoke about a need for a $15 minimum wage across the country and mandatory paid sick days. They said governments need to ensure the future of not-for-profits that have been fighting for gender equity and keeping women safe for years, but are struggling with funding more than ever. They expressed the need for recovery plans that bring a gender-equity lens and that serve the needs of diverse women and gender-diverse individuals.
I also asked whether they’re feeling optimistic about the future. Khan is concerned about whether or not provincial governments have included women’s experts to address these issues in their emergency-response and recovery plans.
Ferguson worries that we’re not going to address the root of inequalities, that if we continue to look at women as a monolith instead of the intersections of say, being a woman and a racialized or disadvantaged individual, that any solutions will be like “putting a Bandaid on gangrene.” Jeffrey is hopeful that Canadians will begin to see women’s success as tied to national prosperity.
But it’s Paulette Senior, from the Canadian Women’s Foundation, whose parting thoughts have stuck with me. “Optimism is not the word I would use,” she says. “I'm seeing that conversations are being had with respect to the undeniable presence of anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, of racialized issues. But what are the actions that will be taken?” Senior sees this moment as a tipping point. “What kinds of decisions will we now make as society, as governments, as leaders? What is the kind of Canada that we want to leave for generations to come? Or are we okay to continue to see this disparity among groups of women?”
In other words, what are we going to do about it?