office workers wearing gloves and masks

Covid-19 continues to devastate the employment picture for women in Canada and around the world.

According to an RBC Economics report, nearly 100,000 women aged 20 and older have exited the labour market since February 2020, compared with fewer than 10,000 men in the same age group. All but two sectors — science/technical and finance/insurance/real estate — saw net job losses for women from February 2020 to January 2021.

The report, written by economists Dawn Desjardins and Carrie Freestone, also found that job losses were more pronounced among mothers, low-wage women, young women, newcomers to Canada and women of colour.

For example, in the past year, 12 times as many mothers as fathers left their jobs to care for toddlers or school-aged children.

“The longer these women are out of the labour force, the greater the risk of skills erosion, which could potentially hamper their ability to get rehired or to transition to different roles as the economy evolves,” Desjardins and Freestone wrote.

The report said that “accessible and targeted training programs” should help workers re-enter the labour market, especially as many menial jobs become automated. Affordable child care would also support re-entry for parents — “but it’s no solution if they don’t have jobs to return to,” the report said.

“She-cession” effects around the world

Research from PwC also warned of the need to take action on women’s unemployment globally.

Analysis accompanying PwC’s Women in Work index found that unless countries address the effects of the pandemic on women, more women will permanently exit the labour force — setting back their workforce gains by decades.

“Even at double the rate of historical progress, the OECD will not catch up to its pre-pandemic equality growth path until 2030,” the PwC report said.

There is an economic argument for improving women’s employment rates: doing so across the OECD could boost those countries’ GDP by US$6 trillion, the PwC report said, and closing the gender pay gap alone could boost OECD GDP by US$2 trillion.

The top three OECD countries on the Women in Work index in 2020 were Iceland, New Zealand and Sweden. (Estimates for 2020 were provisional, the report noted.) Canada ranked 20th, down from 12th in 2019, while the U.S. was 26th, down from 24th.

Across the OECD, women lost their jobs faster than men did in 2020. Both the PwC and RBC reports emphasized that the pandemic has accelerated existing unemployment trends — and Canada’s trends were already upward for both women and men from 2019 to 2020.

Among OECD countries, the U.S., Canada and Chile experienced the greatest increase in the unemployment rates from 2019 to 2020. Specifically, Canada’s female unemployment rate rose 4.1 percentage points year over year, while its male unemployment rate increased by 3.5 points.

The average gender pay gap in Canada for 2019 was 18%, down slightly from 19% the year prior.

Like the RBC report, the PwC report emphasized the importance of addressing child care needs for parents, especially as women continue to do a disproportionate share of the work.

A UN Women study from December 2020 found that across 16 OECD countries, women spent six hours more than men every week on unpaid child care before the pandemic. The gap has since widened: “On average, time spent by women on unpaid child care increased by 5.2 hours per week during Covid-19, compared to a 3.5-hour increase for men,” the PwC report said.

“Covid-19 has exacerbated the already unequal burden of unpaid care and domestic work shouldered by women,” the report added. “This could force more women out of the workforce, reversing progress towards gender equality, and stunting economic growth.”