Will the Government’s Child-Care Efforts Help Fix the She-Cession?

Covid has revealed—and exacerbated—many of the systemic barriers that push women out of the workforce. So, how do we actually fix the gender gap?
(illustration: Marine Buffard)

Women accounted for a staggering 85 per cent of those who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Dubbed a “she-cession” by Institute for Women’s Policy Research president C. Nicole Mason, the disproportionate impact on women—which was even more severe for women of colour—spurred governments and companies to pledge better supports and working conditions.

But while jobs have started to rebound, women continue to struggle with child care, unpaid labour and burnout. Lara Zink, president and CEO of Women in Capital Markets, and Janelle Hinds, founder and executive director of Helping Hands, an organization that matches students with work placements, discuss the ways employers can help fix the problem.

An illustration of Lara Zink by David Sparshott
Lara Zink (illustration: David Sparshott)

LARA ZINK: Data tells us that globally, women spend an average of four hours and 22 minutes per day on unpaid labour compared to two hours and 15 minutes for men. During Covid, that gap widened: Women are now spending an additional 15 hours each week on things like cooking dinner for their families and playing impromptu school teacher. As a result, many have chosen to step out of the workforce, realizing it’s impossible to balance it all.

JANELLE HINDS: The reality is that this problem existed well before Covid. Plenty of women stress about how to go back to work even after just a one-year maternity leave. It’s intimidating to have to explain a gap on your resumé to a potential employer, and that has a big effect on whether a woman will re-enter the workforce.

L.Z. One good thing that’s come from Covid: It’s been a driver for organizations redesigning their employee benefits. For example, TD now offers its employees 10 days of bereavement leave and covers fertility treatments up to $20,000. But we are still at the beginning of this shift. I am extremely hopeful that the lessons of the pandemic, such as the need for flexible hours for working parents, will translate into lasting changes.

J.H. As a new mom myself, I know I would never take a job where I am unable to take time off during the day if I need to. We are currently dealing with a labour shortage, and the only way to fix it is to have more flexible and compassionate policies in place.

Janelle Hinds (illustration by David Sparshott)

L.Z. There’s a real economic benefit to having more women at work. Statistics show that advancing women’s equality can add $150 billion to Canada’s GDP. Organizations would benefit immensely from adopting policies like “opting out,” where all qualified employees are automatically considered for promotions and can simply decline if they aren’t interested. It levels the playing field, and studies have shown that this approach increases women’s participation by 25 per cent. Policies like this will incentivize women to return to work and ensure that there is ample consideration of the challenges they face, like being unaware of those advancement opportunities, when they do return.

J.H. Employers are going to have to be even more mindful of modelling and supporting a culture of balance come June, when Right to Disconnect—the legislation that will require employers to ensure that their staff aren’t working after hours—takes effect in Ontario. With flex hours in place, if a parent takes a break to look after their children, they may still have to work those hours later to make up for it. When do they actually get to disconnect?

L.Z. I agree. It’s incumbent on employers to ensure that these policies actually benefit their employees in practice. The $10-a-day child-care benefit the federal government is proposing would be extremely beneficial for all professions. Affordable child care is an important piece of the puzzle, whether it’s solved by the federal government or by our largest employers, who can lead by example.

J.H. I think it should be the government’s responsibility, because corporate-subsidized daycare would only benefit people who already have jobs at these organizations and therefore are more likely to be able to afford child care in the first place. I would also love to see the government provide incentives for daycares to stay open later—so that women who do shift work can benefit—and make sure that daycare workers are fairly compensated.

L.Z. Steps also need to be taken to destigmatize parental leave and make it possible for men to participate equally in child care. Strong parental-leave policies—that include non-birthing parents—can go a long way to improving retention. That should be top of mind for all employers.

Isabel B. Slone
Isabel B. Slone
Isabel B. Slone is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and others.