Feminism and the Economy?
On this past International Women’s Day, March 8th, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would be taking a women-centric approach to economic recovery following COVID-19 — a pledge that might have seemed to some rather out of left field. After all, what does feminism have to do with COVID, the economy, or its recovery? As it turns out, quite a lot.
Canada’s Working Women
COVID-19 continues to make a lasting impact on national and global economies. However, women have experienced these impacts on many levels that men have not. Unlike previous recessions where men experienced the brunt of the economic impacts, COVID-19 has hit women hardest.
This reality has been especially apparent in Canada. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, women made up nearly half of the Canadian workforce. In occupations such as retail and hospitality, women comprised nearly 55% of employees Canada-wide for 2019 and 2020. However, in the time of COVID-19, these jobs are considered “non-essential” and are therefore more vulnerable to job loss than “essential” occupations such as agriculture (∼79% male workers), trades (∼93% male workers), manufacturing (∼72% male workers). As women in Canada face the lion’s share of the job losses in this pandemic, important factors such as children and childcare, financial insecurity and poverty, ethnicity, disabilities, and domestic violence place additional strains on women’s ability to provide for themselves.
As Spheres of Influence writer Elisa Grunwald points out, “women are more likely to experience barriers in the advancement of [their] professional careers” than men. This is further impacted by the societal norms and expectations placed on women, such as the expectation that women act as the primary caretakers of the home. For women who are mothers and caretakers, lockdowns on any form of paid care directly impact their ability to split time between work and home. Grunwald writes that this “ultimately keeps women from achieving economic independence.”
Additionally, we can see how this trend further impacts women and mothers by looking at low-income earners. According to a 2020 RBC report, “approximately 47% of female employees who were laid off between February and June typically earned $2,000/month or less.” Considering the fact that the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) could fully supplement the income for that 47% of female workers, the incentive to return to a low-income job dissipates. Mothers may have in fact had the most incentive to stay home and rely on CERB as their only source of income. This may have also played a role in the slow re-employment rate for women in Canada during periods of eased restrictions.
Indigenous Women at the Forefront
However, these trends have yet to include factors such as race and culture. Indigenous communities living on reservations experience pandemics differently from Indigenous and non-Indigenous people living in urban areas. Distance from essential services, limited clean water supply, high levels of co–morbidities, and overcrowded housing play critical roles in making these communities vulnerable to detrimental outbreaks.
Canada’s Inuit communities (collectively known as Inuit Nunangat) have faced some of the greatest challenges in this pandemic. The housing crisis in Northern Canada (1950s to current) has exacerbated overcrowded housing and the spreadability of COVID-19. Lack of PPE has been a particularly scary reality for hospitals in Inuit Nunangat. As of September 2020 there were only twelve ventilators available for the entire region of Nunavut – five of which are portable and could be sent to communities with an outbreak.
However, the impact of disease on Inuit communities had been long felt before COVID. In 2016 the rate of tuberculosis found among Inuit in Inuit Nunangat was over 300 times the rate of that found among non-indigenous Canadians. Diagnosing and treating tuberculosis in this context is difficult as access to healthcare facilities is extremely limited. Even if there is a clinic nearby, they are often underfunded, understaffed, and ill-equipped.
For Inuit women in particular, overcrowded housing reflects a key obstacle to economic independence. These overcrowded households are comprised of family members both distant and immediate. As we know, women are expected to take up the task of caring for those at home. This places these women at high risk for contracting COVID. If we then consider the lack of resources, food insecurity, and the ongoing nationwide pandemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), it becomes clear that Inuit, Metis, and First Nations face serious barriers to accessing economic freedom in Canada.
Not only do these factors make it difficult for women to participate in the economy, but they also prevent women from recovering with the economy. This discovery prompted feminist scholars and economists to urge countries like Canada to establish an economic recovery plan that accounts for these issues.
One of the earliest voices to speak on this issue was Canadian professor Sarah Kaplan. In April 2020, Kaplan and her organization GATE (Gender And The Economy) released their research findings on the gendered impacts of COVID-19. Kaplan recalled speaking to a colleague who was frustrated that “at a time when people were getting sick and dying, and the economy is in the tank, [she] would dare be talking about gender issues.” Her response to this colleague was simply, “how dare you not.”
Kaplan and feminist scholars like her point out that gender issues are closely linked to health, politics, and the economy. In fact, ignoring gender perspectives could hinder economic recovery altogether. In response, experts and organizations like GATE and YWCA Canada have teamed up to put forward a comprehensive list of recommendations for the Canadian government and its policymakers.
In their “Feminist Economy Recovery Plan for Canada,” GATE and YWCA Canada highlight eight crucial areas for policymakers, the first being intersectionality.
Intersectionality refers to the ways in which factors of identity such as race, class, and gender interact to produce different experiences of oppression and privilege. To this end, GATE and YWCA Canada proposed that Canada provide in-depth intersectional analysis “on all forthcoming pandemic policies” to understand the different impacts current policies have and how to design better ones.
GATE and YWCA Canada also stated that investing in jobs means more than providing job opportunities. In their Recovery Plan, they suggest that Canada legislate several worker benefits such as at least two weeks of paid sick days and paid family leave; financial support for retraining and professional development for those who have experienced job loss; incentives for workers in childcare and eldercare; and perhaps most importantly, the legislation of job protection for “individuals with disabilities who are unable to fulfill job duties due to the risk of contracting COVID-19 as well as systemic barriers such as lack of access to accessible transportation.” These policies alone would make important changes to how individuals interact with the job market and the economy.
Take the legislation for job protection and paid sick leave, for example. Labour laws already have measures in place guarding employees against risk. However, the pandemic has increased risks at work, particularly in female-dominated sectors like healthcare, retail, and restaurants, where contact with other people is high. However, as we have already discussed, these jobs are prone to lockdowns. Therefore the number of hours an individual can work between government-mandated shutdowns becomes insecure and that much more valuable. As a result, one is more likely to take greater risks to their health for the sake of their income by working more hours or even taking a second job with the same or greater exposure risk. In turn, it becomes a double-edged sword: in putting yourself at greater risk of catching the virus, you are also increasing the chance that you will have to go two weeks without pay. Not to mention the risk you may pose to members of your household such as children or the elderly, thereby, increasing the time and resources needed to care for others at home.
Legislation that can provide a safety net for this pitfall would allow women working in these industries to stay afloat longer and provide job security to return to the workforce.
Where are we now?
As it stands, the government of Canada has implemented a women-only task force to advise policy-makers on economic recovery. The task force of eighteen members will work closely with the federal government to ensure a feminist, intersectional action plan is developed and implemented. Members of the task force have a range of expertise from business and health to child care and advocacy. In addition, experts will now analyze programs and policies through a Gender-based Analysis Plus (GBA+) process to determine the impacts on different groups of people. The federal government has also reaffirmed its commitment to the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) in advancing women’s economic empowerment. The approximately $5 billion CAD program aims to increase access for women-owned businesses to necessary financing and expertise. The WES has a set target of doubling the number of women-owned businesses by 2025.
Getting Back to Normal
As vaccine rollout continues, Canadians are looking desperately to get back to normal. However, COVID-19 has made one thing clear: normal isn’t enough. This pandemic has highlighted the disparity that exists between men and women. These disparities only grow the more we explore gender, ethnicity, wealth, and accessibility. It is time we stop viewing feminism and gender as separate from the world we live in.
Canada cannot afford to leave women behind in this pandemic. Women have made incredible strides to make up nearly half of the Canadian workforce. As such, an economy without women cannot recover. Simply put, you need us.