B.C.'s working women carrying bigger burden than men amid pandemic: report

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What happened: New study reveals disproportionate impact pandemic has had on B.C. women in the workforce

Why it matters: Consequences could be “catastrophic” if no measures taken

Provincial measures meant to tamp down on the pandemic this past spring saw schools and swaths of businesses temporarily shuttered, leaving many British Columbians tied to their own households throughout the season.

And as the COVID-19 crisis persists and additional restrictions go into effect, new findings reveal B.C. women in the workforce continue to carry a heavier burden than their male counterparts.

The Wednesday (November 25) report commissioned by the B.C. Women’s Health Foundation in partnership with Pacific Blue Cross points to how family obligations had a disproportionate impact on women.

Working mothers ages 24-55 were sharply affected by early measures that saw schools and daycares temporarily shuttered.

That demographic lost 26% of working hours in April compared with a loss of 14% of working hours experienced by fathers as children remained home.

Part of this may also be explained by the fact more than half of B.C women are employed in industries most affected by the restrictions brought on by the pandemic: healthcare, retail, education, and accommodation and food service.

“Concentration of employment in these sectors led to women in B.C. losing 60% more jobs in March 2020 than men,” the report states, adding the effective unemployment rate for women grew to 26.5% in March and 28% in April.

Those industries also have a higher risk of social interaction, which would put women further at risk of coming into contact with COVID-19, according to a COVID-19 risk/reward assessment developed by the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of B.C.

“One example is the retail industry, which employs 12% of working women in B.C. in highly interactive retail sales and cashier roles (risk scores between 58-70), and 11% of men in roles such as sales manager and service station attendant (risk scores between 41-52),” the report states.

The assessment’s risk score ranges from 0 (no risk) to 100 (most risk).

“More alarmingly, this heightened risk exists in occupations that are deemed essential services, specifically healthcare and food services, and industries necessary for the full reopening of the economy, including daycares and schools,” the report states.

The potential safety impacts also aren’t limited to the virus itself.

With more people staying home, the report referred to Statistics Canada data that determined 16% of women have reported a perceived risk of domestic violence as an impact of COVID-19.

“Ignoring the unique impacts of this pandemic on women’s health and failing to initiate gender-specific supports to ensure a strong recovery could be catastrophic to our already struggling economy,” the report states.

The B.C. Women’s Health Foundation is funding initiatives supporting women experiencing violence, research on pandemic countermeasures on women and women’s clinical care.

Meanwhile, RBC economists raised concerns last week about how the pandemic was impacting Canadian women’s employment, noting that between February and October nearly 68,000 men joined the labour force while 20,600 women departed.

"Indeed, the number of women who are out of the labour force has increased 2.8% since February," wrote report authors and RBC economists Dawn Desjardins and Carrie Freestone, referring to those who lost their jobs, are not temporarily laid off and are not looking for work.

“When men lost their jobs, the majority actively sought out employment (meaning that they were considered `unemployed’). Meanwhile, a sizeable portion of women chose not to (they were considered `out of the labour force’).”

And out of 48,000 jobs lost last month in accommodation and food services, the RBC report found about 80% of those workers were women.

“In fact, women account for nearly twice the share of the decline in labour force participation in this industry as males. Fears of a second surge likely factored heavily in their decision to remain out of the labour force,” the authors stated.

“Any developments that prolong the struggles of certain industries and keep more children at home are likely to delay women’s return to the labour force. That delay could have far-reaching implications for narrowing the gender wage gap and for facilitating the ability of women to acquire the skills they will need in an economy in the midst of significant transition.”