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This article appears in the November 2020 issue of Investment ExecutiveSubscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.

Covid-19 has exacerbated the divide between men and women in the job market.

The pandemic resulted in widespread closures of schools, childcare centres and day camps, which forced many people — particularly women — to rethink their priorities. The result: women’s participation in the workforce went from a historical high to its lowest point in more than 30 years, according to a recent report from Royal Bank of Canada’s economics department.

“Employment among women with toddlers or school-aged children fell [by] 7% between February and May compared [with] a decline of 4% among fathers of children the same age,” the report noted.

For single mothers, employment dropped by 12% from February to June, compared with a 7% decline among single fathers, the report stated.

“I do worry about the long-term implications [for] women — not only from the financial services, but generally,” says Jennifer Reynolds, president and CEO of Toronto Finance International, who fears that the wage gap between men and women will widen. “We weren’t where we should have been when [the pandemic] started, so losing ground will be really painful.”

Reynolds notes that other sectors — such as services and health care — have been hit harder than financials by these numerous departures. While most financial services professionals are able to continue doing their work despite the pandemic, she underscores the fact that the situation has affected employment in the financial services sector.

According to a study released in July by Women in Capital Markets, nearly one in 10 women working in financial services in Toronto have considered quitting, and the same proportion have considered asking for leaves of absence.

“Covid-19 has been very demanding because children have been at home and we’ve had an economic crisis,” says Catherine Laflamme, portfolio manager and investment advisor at RBC Dominion Securities Inc. in Quebec City and a mother of two.

Laflamme left her previous firm for RBC, which she says offered her more support. “I went looking for resources that could help me stop being the centre of everything and [allow me] to delegate in certain areas,” she explains, stating that she made the decision in large part for her family.

“Having our children at home means there are choices to be made,” says Sara Gilbert, business coach and founder of Strategist Business Development in Montreal. “Women have this extra challenge they have to face.”

However, Gilbert explains, none of her female clients have left the sector, even though many female financial advisors have been forced to work fewer hours due to caregiving demands.

A number of Gilbert’s female clients put their business development plans on hold — something she hasn’t noticed among her male clients. “It’s too bad, because during the pandemic, a lot of investors are at home, have more time and are thinking about switching advisors,” she says.

More flexibility

To avoid an exodus of women from the workforce, employers must offer flexibility — and businesses have taken note.

“Good companies try to be sensitive and do whatever they can to support their employees in terms of scheduling,” Reynolds says.

Laflamme says her firm made sure she was quickly given remote electronic access so she could spend more time with her family. “They have been very understanding and very flexible,” she says. “They make my life easier and take off a degree of stress. I think that, being a mother, it’s something we need.”

Remote work has effectively enabled many women to continue working despite their family obligations.

Ann-Rebecca Savard, investment advisor at MICA Cabinets de services financiers in Quebec City, says Covid-19 has changed people’s perceptions of working from home.

“Before, if we were at home making calls or if we suggested a teleconference, people were reticent. Now, when we hear a child in the background, we’re no longer surprised. Over the long term, I think this will have a positive impact and encourage women who want to become advisors,” Savard says. As an example, she points to one-year maternity leave, which until now has been difficult to take in this line of work.

Reynolds says pandemic adaptations are here to stay, as they offer many advantages ­— especially for women.

“I think we will see a fundamental change. I think we’ll keep working from home and [maintain the associated] flexibility,” Reynolds says. Still, she adds, certain people will return to working at an office sooner or later. “I think we’ll land somewhere in the middle of where we were before and where we are now.”

Necessary changes

Although financial services firms are trying to support their advisors, workloads have increased due to market volatility, which has led some women to quit their jobs. To avoid this turning into a long-term trend, the firms in the sector need to make adjustments.

Reynolds acknowledges that many women work in financial services, but few hold management positions.

“To change this situation, businesses should pay more attention to the situation and to the advancement of women within their own organizations,” Reynolds says. “I believe in data. This is about tracking how many women you have at each level of the organization, tracking your promotion process, tracking so you know what happens with every single promotion. If you only do that at a senior level, you’ll never solve the problem. You won’t understand why you’ve lost all the women.”

Gilbert says there’s also a problem with firms’ messaging: institutions treat finance as a career based on performance, when it should be presented as a career based on relationships.

“Sometimes, the performance side takes precedence over the human side, and that makes a lot of women check out,” Gilbert says. “It’s still an industry about numbers, whereas [many] women want to help clients, even to the detriment of their own businesses. There need to be some changes — maybe looking more at the profitability of practices rather than the volume of business and performance.”

Gilbert says more women would be drawn to the profession if there were more mentorship opportunities. “Women have more of that social aspect in their DNA. They need to discuss, learn from each other and be able to share,” she says.

Savard says she’s disappointed that there aren’t more independent female advisors in the field, as she believes an independent structure allows women to achieve work/life balance more easily.

Savard adds that promoting careers in finance would be one way to attract more women to the profession. She remembers seeing posters at her university from the Institut québécois de planification financière that depicted strong, proud women saying they wanted to look after the financial health of Québécois.

Savard says posters like these should also be in high schools to encourage more young women to pursue finance and to help them understand that the sector is about more than just numbers.