The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive medical and economic disruption across the globe, and there will be long-term disruptions; we won’t be returning to the pre-pandemic “normal.” Canada is better positioned than many countries as COVID-19 becomes endemic, but research indicates that women in the workforce have suffered disproportionately. Work toward increased Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility (IDEA) in organizations has also been affected, as COVID and the economy have been the immediate priority for management, leading to further ill effects for marginalized and racialized women.
The Front Lines
Women who have remained employed have been on the front lines of the response to the pandemic. Women, including those in feminized and racialized parts of the labour force, form the majority of the workforce in retail, accommodation, food service, social assistance administration, and healthcare – sectors of the economy deemed “essential.”
The sectors may have been deemed essential, but job losses have been higher among women and particularly among the lowest paid. Understaffing has exacerbated the problem, with management pressing exhausted workers to cover more shifts. In healthcare, the consequences have been borne by women since they make up four out of five Canadian health workers. Nursing has been especially impacted, with estimated shortages across Canada as high as 60,000. Canadian nurses number approximately 300,000, so a shortage of 60,000 is critical. Other sectors have also seen negative impacts. In short, the effects of COVID-19 on many front-line working women have been devastating.
Working from Home
Working from home is popular. It saves commuting time and expense and allows families to spend more time together. In the aftermath of the pandemic, it seems likely that working from home will be more common. Many job types, however, require presence at the employer’s location, particularly the front-line positions mentioned above, in which the majority are held by women. The result is that working from home is not an option for many women, particularly marginalized lower-paid women.
For women who can work from home, the advantages are often outweighed by the disadvantages. Despite incremental changes in Canadian attitudes, responsibilities for child care, meal preparation and cleaning are still borne by women. The closure of schools and daycares has effectively meant that employed women have had two jobs – or three, counting supervision of children’s online education. If their spouses still work outside the home, women have dealt with the responsibilities alone. This situation has forced many women to unwillingly drop out of the workforce, resulting in an undermining of progress toward equitable workplaces.
The additional pressure of living in close proximity month after month has also increased relationship issues, gender-based violence, and the demand for mental health assistance. Schools and daycares are reopening, but daycare costs are prohibitive for the unemployed. There is also the matter of housing insecurity and what constitutes “home.” Many unhoused and under-housed working women faced substantial challenges when they were asked to do their job where they lived. Working from home may be terrific for upper-middle-class women, but it isn’t a viable option for many working mothers.
Back to the Office
As operations are slowly restored, some companies are adjusting the distribution of employees and moving head offices, giving up multiple floors in office towers. If mid-level managers are working from their homes, their absence will affect their influence and immediate contributions to the office culture. The disruption of career paths has also affected the “pipeline” that helped to prepare women for future leadership roles. Without measures to correct that disruption, there will be lasting damage. For companies with large numbers of lower-paid employees, the challenge is greater. IDEA program delivery is inevitably complicated by a dispersed workforce and immediate existential threats to companies’ entire operations.
Post-COVID-19, organizations must align their IDEA training efforts with the new conditions. The setbacks caused by the pandemic mean that training efforts will have to include making up lost ground as well as trying to move forward. One heartening piece of information, from McKinsey analysts, is that 90% of companies with existing IDEA programs have remained committed to those programs. Adopting IDEA programs tailored to companies’ needs will indicate their commitment to equity and inclusivity. COVID-related setbacks to working women in general and racialized and marginalized employees in particular, can be mitigated, but not without attention and effort.