Statistics show ‘surrender’ is over, but experts say it’s not so fast

CALGARY – When Alicia Dempster started her maternity leave in June 2019, she never dreamed that she would still be home two and a half years later.

Le Stouffville, Ont. The woman fully intended to return to her job as an event planner for a local municipality after 15 months at home looking after her baby and baby brother.

But COVID-19 derailed those plans. When her due date to return to work arrived, the complete absence of public events meant that the job she once had no longer existed. The other job her employer offered her – mowing the grass and picking the weeds with the park service – seemed to fall outside her skills, so she opted to stay home “just a little bit longer.”

Now his sons are five and two and a half and the Omicron variant is on the rise.

Like many Canadian women, Dempster isn’t just concerned with how long she’s been out of the workforce, but if she finds a job, she knows she will juggle the demands of work and parenthood, including COVID testing and mandatory isolation every time. of her children coughs or sniffles.

While recent data suggests an upturn in employment for working-age women, statistics fail to capture the full picture, in which many women still struggle to balance work and family life.

At the onset of the pandemic, much was written about COVID-19’s disproportionate toll on the finances and career prospects of Canadian women. Female-dominated industries like accommodation and food services have been hit hardest by the restrictions and lockdowns, and many women have also suffered from a lack of child care services as daycare centers and schools closed in the first months of the pandemic.

Even a year later, in March 2021, female employment was still around 5.3% below its February 2020 level, compared to a drop of around 3.7% for men, according to a Council report. labor market information.

But as the economy gradually reopened over the summer and fall, the outlook for women improved. Canada as a whole caught up to its number of jobs before the pandemic in September of this year, and according to Statistics Canada, the only age group of women who have not yet regained their pre-pandemic employment levels are the 55 and over category.

“Now if you look at younger women, their employment rate is higher than before the pandemic. Just over a percentage point higher, ”said University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe. “It’s the same story for the 25-54 age group – their employment rate is one percentage point higher.

But Armine Yalnizyan, a Toronto-based economist and member of the Atkinson Foundation on the Future of Workers, warns against ending the “surrender.” She pointed out that statistics provide a holistic view of a population and that many individual women are still grappling with the impacts of the pandemic on their careers and finances.

In addition, said Yalnizyan, it is essential to remember that Statistics Canada’s employment data is only about the “quantity” of jobs, not “quality” – a key part of the story. regarding COVID-19 and its effects on gender and the workforce.

“The issue of the quality of work is really very important to the issue of what happens to women,” she said. “For the ‘I can’t get promoted, had to change jobs or I’m stressed about losing my job, I’m barely hanging on because my kids are half home. of time ”, the binary“ are you employed or not employed ”is not a very good measure.”

Before the pandemic hit, Stephanie Bakker-Houpf of High River, Alta., Was delighted to finally have time to focus on launching her content creation and management consulting business after years of putting her skills to work. own career dreams on the back burner of raising her two now teenage daughters.

But not only did her bread and butter contracts with musical and artist clients dried up in the absence of live performances last year, divorced Bakker-Houpf found herself sacrificing precious work time as well. that she was helping her daughters home school and supporting them. through all the turmoil and anxieties that come with being a child in a pandemic.

“Children today are constantly faced with uncertainty and the interruption of their lives. And yet we moms are still supposed to be able to function the same and present ourselves to our work the same. “said Bakker-Houpf.

Jennifer Hargreaves, founder and CEO of diversity recruiting organization Tellent – which aims to help women in career transition find new opportunities – said whether it is true that as many women can work now that before the pandemic, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

In fact, Hargreaves said she fears Canadian women workers are heading for another crisis in 2022, as employers begin to urge employees to return to the office at least part-time, even as schools and daycares continue to fight COVID cases. and children under 5 are not vaccinated.

“The scary thing is that some employers seem eager to say, ‘we’re getting back to normal this year,” Hargreaves said. “Because what I’m really seeing on the ground is more and more of women reaching out and receiving mental health support as they have just reached a tipping point of burnout. And women take time off for stress. “

If there is one thing women have working in their favor, Hargreaves said, it’s the fact that employers across a wide range of industries are currently struggling with systemic labor shortages. She said she hopes this will prompt employers to recognize that the way to retain talent is to continue to prioritize flexibility.

“I hope employers can learn the lessons from COVID-19 and start implementing them and making this culture shift,” Hargreaves said. “I think they are absolutely going to have to do it to stay nimble in this new economy.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on December 28, 2021.

Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press