Nearly two years ago, many began sounding the alarm on the she-cession—a term coined to describe the disproportionate impact of COVID on women—and warning that the pandemic threatened decades of women’s labour force gains in Canada. Though a national phenomenon, the same trends were evident in Alberta, and it was worrying.
Gender equity, or lack thereof, affects the overall well-being of society from higher wages to better performing companies to happier marriages. As a result, any setback on equity is damaging to Albertans, women and men alike.
Now, over two years after the outset of the pandemic, we partnered with Axis Connects, a local not-for-profit focused on advancing female representation in decision-making roles to ask two critical questions:
- How did/will COVID impact gender equity in Alberta? and
- What is needed to further progress from here?
Below, we tackle our first question, and, in a forthcoming commentary, will address the second.
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To be sure, the question of how COVID has impacted gender equity in Alberta is complex and multifaceted. It has been pored over by countless experts and advocates. The next ~1,500 words cannot possibly cover this work fully—or from all angles.
Nevertheless, we think it is important to provide a high-level assessment of what the research tells us and to recount some of the key things we’ve learned in order to improve the outcome for women in the workplace as we emerge from the pandemic. We focus on three areas that have a significant impact on gender equity: employment and workforce participation; household responsibilities; and leadership and representation.
Employment & Participation
What we know
The good news is, women in Alberta have, on average, fully recovered in terms of factors such as employment and labour force participation (though still trailing male participation)—something that seemed like an impossibility in the depths of lockdowns and restrictions. In fact, our data shows that among prime-age women (those 25 – 54), participation in the labour force reached a record high in January.
Worries that a larger number of women would permanently leave the labour force have, overall, proven unfounded in Canada (though it continues to be an issue across many OECD countries). In fact, women in Canada (and Alberta) have proven remarkably resilient. Considering the initial concerns that once women left the labour force, they might struggle to return, setting back the clock on progress, their ability and apparent eagerness to get back into the workforce is something worth celebrating.
The story for women in Alberta with children, however, is a little more complicated. Though most who left work or lost work have returned, one group still trails behind: those whose youngest child is 6 to 12 years old. This group is still less likely to be a part of the labour force (83% versus 86% before) or working (78% versus 83% before) than they were at the outset of the pandemic, something more pronounced in Alberta than other large provinces. Furthermore, working parents more generally have been more likely to be absent from work than their counterparts, presumably to support or care for children.
- Female participation among those 25 – 54 increased from 83% pre-pandemic to 84.7% in January while male participation held steady from 92.6% to 92.9%.
- Female employment among those 25 – 54 increased from 78.1% to 79.6% while male employment increased from 86.9% to 88.6%.
- Labour participation among women whose youngest child is 6 to 12 years old, however continues to trail pre-pandemic levels, at 83% which is 3% points below pre-COVID levels.
Even among those women who are back at work, their prolonged absence could have lasting consequences for their future earnings and career growth opportunities. For instance, in any given month over the course of the pandemic, there were around 13,000 more women out of the workforce than normal compared with just 2,000 more men in Alberta. This time out of work, and missed opportunities for on-the-job training and development, could tarnish future performance reviews, delay pay raises, and postpone promotions.
Complicating matters, though data are unavailable provincially, national data suggest women are more likely to be suffering mental health challenges (54% of women were considered “high risk”, compared with 42% of men). This could manifest as higher absenteeism, difficulty concentrating, and overall stress, weighing on their ability to excel at work.
Of note, lower income earners are likely to be suffering the most (51% face mental health challenges compared with 44% of high income earners). Given that racialized women are more likely to fall into the former category, this means they are at greatest risk as well. This could be, in part, because poorer neighborhoods and workplaces more likely to employ low-income individuals who were ravaged by the virus with a virulence not seen among the high-income, work-from-home crowd.
What we know
Even though an increasing number of women who have children continue to work, women spend more time doing unpaid work than men (e.g., laundry, cooking, looking after children). This was a major concern during COVID as the workloads of families, especially those with young children, increased dramatically in the face of remote learning; upended work schedules; and an indefinite cancellation of things that keep kids happy and busy (e.g., summer camp, swim lessons, etc.). Women—in Alberta and across the globe—were more likely than men to be at once managing bosses, employees, and toddlers. This was most notable in the first wave of COVID—before child care facilities were fully operational and when many schools were shut down.
Yet there are two glimmers of hope for the future. First, research from the University of Calgary finds evidence that fathers in Alberta “may have taken on a greater share of childcare and other household responsibilities during the pandemic” and there may even be “shifting attitudes about the role of men in household work.” One caveat to this positive finding is that single women with children represent a growing share of the total number of families out there, making this dynamic less relevant. Secondly, Canada overall, and Alberta in particular, placed a greater emphasis on keeping schools open and running in-person compared with other jurisdictions like the U.S. Though a difficult decision among imperfect options, this was likely better for most children and their parents than the online substitute, limiting longer-term consequences to both.
- Before the crisis, unpaid care work fell more heavily on females in two-parent, heterosexual families.
- Though this is likely still true, early evidence suggests that men in Alberta took on a greater share of childcare and household responsibilities in the face of the pandemic.
- Yet, it is worth keeping in mind 14% of families in Alberta are single parents, often the mom, where this would not be relevant.
One silver lining of the pandemic is that those early months made Canadians—those with children and those without, alike—keenly aware of how crucial safe, affordable, and dependable child care is to enable parents to work, especially women. It was the impetus for the creation of the federal government’s $10/day Early Learning & Child Care Program and the signing of this agreement by the Government of Alberta.
Given how prohibitive child care costs were to women in Alberta previously, this step is likely to have a lasting impact on labour force participation and representation of women in the province which, research suggests, translates to more equitable responsibilities at home.
However, looking ahead, another trend could mean family responsibilities continue to fall more heavily on women. Some recent research suggests there might be an unintended consequence for women of a shift to a work-from-home culture: more responsibility at home and less professional opportunity for women.
Leadership & Representation
What we know
The true impact of COVID on gender representation in leadership roles in Alberta is not as straightforward. Women’s participation specifically in leadership roles has been found to improve conditions for women at large, as female leaders tend to champion gender specific issues. Cobbling together some disparate sources, it seems possible that over the course of the pandemic, gender representation at the executive level has modestly improved (although the numbers were already low to begin with). For instance, women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies reached an all-time high in the midst of the pandemic.
Within Canada, the number of women on company boards and in the House of Commons rose to an all-time high in 2021 while the number in managerial positions held fairly steady. Though data are unavailable provincially since the pandemic began, female representation in director positions in Alberta was on the rise prior to the pandemic. It was low at just 17.5%—and slightly trailed other large provinces—but it was improving.
That said, any progress since the pandemic was likely decades in the making, as more women have begun to see top executive positions as attainable, and companies and their investors increasingly recognize the value of diversity of gender, race, and background at various levels of leadership and support its growth.
Given current representation tends to reflect the progress of the recent past, the real question will be: what happens over the next 5 years in Alberta as the result of the pandemic?
- As of 2020, 38 women led a Fortune 500 company, more than ever before; though a far cry from strong representation at less than 10% of CEOs.
- Likewise, in Canada the proportion of women on company boards of directors and in the House of Commons increased to an all-time high of 32.9% and 30.5%, respectively, as of 2021.
- Female representation in director positions in Alberta rose to 17.5% as of 2018, up from 16.7% as of 2017, although one to two percentage points lower than most other large provinces.
The same issues described above could become an issue here if more months out of the labour force—or, simply more months of taking on additional child care responsibilities while working—and lingering mental health challenges make it harder to climb the ladder.
That said, there are a couple of reasons for optimism. First, issues of equity are perhaps more top of mind than ever before. This has already led to one tangible outcome mentioned above: lower cost of childcare, an important barrier for women with children. Access to affordable child care will help make the path to the top easier for women. Secondly, there are more sources of inspiration than ever before. COVID shined a light on the strength, stability, and communication skills of many leaders who are women—from New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern to Germany’s Angela Merkel to Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, not to mention the many female leaders in the medical field and corporate world. This kind of positive visibility matters.
As we dive deeper into each of the three identified areas that have a significant impact on gender equity in Alberta, we are driven by the question of what is needed to further progress from here.
What we know is that amidst the challenges that COVID has presented for women, it has also helped to shed light on both the progress that has been made and the gender disparities that still exist. We see this as an opportunity to propel the movement toward creating meaningful and lasting changes for gender equity forward.
In partnership with Axis Connects, our second commentary will assess what is still needed for women to fully participate in Alberta’s economy and reach their full potential to build a stronger Alberta.
This piece was written in partnership with Axis Connects | Advancing Women in Calgary