Ontario’s She-Covery: In Conversation with Government
The disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic threaten to roll back economic gains made by women in Canada across generations. In fact, the participation rate of women in Canada’s workforce has recently fallen to its lowest point in 30 years, and women are regaining employment notably slower than men are. Systemic inequalities facing women prior to the pandemic have been exacerbated and further entrenched, resulting in what some economists have termed a “she-cession.”
The She-Covery Project: Confronting the Gendered Economic Impacts of COVID-19 in Ontario lays out a path to the province’s economic recovery where women can prosper. Led by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce in collaboration with the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub, Ontario Power Generation, and the Diversity Institute, the report offers practical short-term and long-term recommendations that stress the importance of leadership and accountability, child care, workforce development, entrepreneurship, and flexible work.
WEKH Director Wendy Cukier recently joined Claudia Dessanti (Senior Policy Analyst, Ontario Chamber of Commerce), the Honourable Stephen Lecce (Ontario’s Minister of Education), and the Honourable Jill Dunlop (Ontario’s Associate Minister of Children and Women’s Issues) for an insightful discussion moderated by Lisa McBride (Manager, Stakeholder Relations, Ontario Power Generation; and President, Women in Nuclear Canada).
Claudia Dessanti opened the floor by sharing key findings from the report and explaining why women have been so deeply impacted by the pandemic. For instance, women are overrepresented in sectors that involve face-to-face contact, and have shouldered much of the additional childcare and homeschooling needs. Marginalized women—those from low-income families, racialized groups, immigrant and newcomer communities, transgender women, and women with disabilities—have been most affected.
Women entrepreneurs, who have businesses that tend to be smaller and less well-financed than those owned by men, have been particularly susceptible to the impacts of COVID-19. Women entrepreneurs were more likely to lose contracts, have to lay-off staff, and permanently close their businesses as a result of the pandemic.
A childcare system that is inaccessible and unaffordable to many remains a significant barrier as Ontario residents move to a “new normal” and slowly return to workplaces. Dr. Cukier pointed to recent research that finds more than 30% of women have considered not returning to work because of childcare issues. Facilitating accessible and affordable childcare options as part of the province’s recovery could have powerful multiplier effects through many facets of the economy. “Every childcare position we invest in helps many more women go back to work. We have to continue to think of this as an economic issue rather than just a women’s issue,” Dr. Cukier explained.
Designing the “She-Covery”
Women’s workforce development has long been recognized as an important opportunity to drive innovation and resilience across the economy. This is especially true today. Dr. Cukier emphasized that investments in upskilling and reskilling programs that aim to address skills gaps with new ways of thinking about apprenticeship and the skilled trades is essential to securing a prosperous future in the province. Programs that recognize alternative pathways to digital skills can also be a key driver in bridging the digital divide and boosting the representation of women in the high-growth technology sector.
Entrepreneurial women can also play a significant role in Ontario’s economic recovery. Dr. Cukier suggested that procurement can be one effective “strategic lever” the government can pull to help build a more inclusive innovation ecosystem that supports women entrepreneurs and their businesses: “There are tremendous opportunities to use existing funds strategically to drive gender and diversity through different sectors.” Indeed, there are clear economic benefits to investing in women entrepreneurs. Closing the gender gap in entrepreneurship alone could add up to $81 billion to Canada’s GDP.
An Opportunity to Build Back Better
Ministers Dunlop and Lecce recognized the critical need to address the particular challenges women in Ontario are facing in order to move the province forward. “We are committed to ensuring that women are not left behind as we rebuild the economy. Our government wants to build a strong province where every woman and girl is empowered to succeed,” Minister Dunlop explained.
Minister Lecce underlined his commitment to keeping schools open, maintaining the accessibility of childcare, and providing families with the support they need during this difficult time. While the province’s Child Care Tax Credit covers up to 75% of expenses for a number of Ontario families, the Minister acknowledged that more needs to be done. The Minister noted that the present moment is an opportunity to reimagine what childcare can be in the province.
As part of Ontario’s economic recovery, the government is also working to increase the representation of women in fields currently dominated by men. Minister Lecce highlighted the government’s efforts to help more women and girls consider work and studies in science, technology, math, and engineering. Minister Dunlop added that more than 200,000 well-paying jobs sit vacant in the skilled trades that may employ women. These jobs, however, may carry stigma that turn women away. The Minister emphasized that the government has launched a public information campaign to challenge the stereotypes surrounding these lines of work, and continues to invest in training programs to help women enter the trades.
Panelists stressed that Ontario is faced with a chance to rebuild an economy and province that works better for all residents. At a time when institutions, industries and systems have transformed in days, change is possible. “I think we can think about necessity as the mother of invention. I think we can really embrace the idea of rebuilding better,” Dr. Cukier suggested.
The cost of inaction is high. “If we do not prioritize women’s economic recovery, we won’t just be setting women back, but we will also be jeopardizing Ontario’s economic prosperity more broadly,” Dessanti explained.
Read “The She-Covery Project: Confronting the Gendered Economic Impacts of COVID-19 in Ontario” and use the hashtag #SheCovery on social media to lend your voice to the project