Fair work is about economic justice for women

Our economy benefits when women participate equally in the workforce. But too many women are working in part-time and precarious jobs, or work in sectors that offer low pay, poor working conditions and few opportunities for advancement.

We often hear that women have to “lean in” or that we can achieve gender equality by improving the numbers of women in management or STEM careers. Unless we examine the structural barriers that limit workplace fairness, any gains that some women make will not be shared by women in all job classes, categories and sectors. We need to think differently.

The status quo isn’t working for women

It’s clear that women are at a disadvantage in the world of work. The situation is even more bleak for women with disabilities, Indigenous women, immigrant women, Black and racialized women, and lone parents, who are often over-represented in low-wage and precarious work, or excluded from the workforce altogether.

Women also continue to do the majority of unpaid household work, including caring for children and sick or aging relatives. This is known as “the second shift” and can impact their choice of job, or limit their chances of promotion. Our economy’s reliance on women’s unpaid care work contributes to women’s poverty, affects mental and physical health, lifetime earnings and increases family stress.

Stereotypes about women and mothers have a demonstrated impact on hiring decisions and also impact opportunities to advance at work. This is known as the “motherhood penalty.”

The world of work is changing. Automation and other technological advances will have serious impacts on women’s jobs. The rapidly aging population means that demands for caregiving are growing. Without a significant investment in our already-stretched public care services, women will be left to pick up the slack.

COVID-19, women and work

Women, new immigrants and racialized workers have been disproportionately impacted by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Women continue to fall behind in the recovery and their labour force participation remains well below that of men.

More than 1.5 million women lost their jobs in the first two months of the COVID-19 shutdown, and many more have reduced their hours and income in order to care for children or other family members. Lone mothers are particularly impacted, with employment rates down 12% (compared to a 7% decline for single fathers).

Job gains from the gradual reopening of the economy have been slower for women than men. As child care remains inaccessible, back-to-school meaning remote or hybrid learning for many, and with the prospect of a second wave on the horizon, many working mothers face stark choices ahead.

The numbers of women working in precarious or low-wage jobs who lost work or hours are especially stark: almost 6 in 10. The workers most affected by the pandemic are those who already face marginalization and discrimination: Black, Indigenous and women of colour, women with disabilities and newcomers.

At the same time, women have been on the front lines of this pandemic, doing the work that keeps our communities healthy, safe, fed and supported. Jobs in these women-dominated sectors, caring, clerical, catering, cashiering, and cleaning, are typically undervalued, with low wages, poor job security and poor working conditions.

Many of the women working in these sectors are racialized, immigrant and migrant women, and the pandemic has increased their vulnerability, including increased risk of exposure to the virus, higher exposure to violence and harassment, and inadequate access to PPE and paid sick days.

Advancing gender equality at work

If we really want women to succeed in the workplace, we need both governments and employers to be willing to break down the barriers that keep women from work, and to demonstrate a willingness to make investments to help address one of the biggest challenges: unpaid care and household work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made these challenges even worse, especially for lone mothers and low-wage workers who are disproportionately Black and Indigenous women and women of colour.

Gender equality at work means fair wages and working conditions in all job categories and classes. It means a livable wage, access to comprehensive benefits and leaves regardless of whether a worker is full-time or part-time, hourly or salaried, permanent or temporary. It means opportunities for advancement and fair hiring policies. It means control over one’s schedule, and it means workplace policies that help workers meet their family responsibilities.

Change must begin at the lowest levels of the company’s job categories and pay scales—it won’t trickle down from the top.

A feminist recovery plan would centre the needs of the people most impacted by this crisis.

Governments can use employment standards to help promote gender equality and fair work for all workers, and ensure that labour legislation respects, protects and promotes the right to organize and bargain collectively.

The federal government must address the care crisis and the changing world of work by building and growing the care sector with good jobs that don’t rely on women’s unpaid work to undertake this second shift.

In order to ensure a just and equitable economic recovery that secures fair and decent work for all, to address the care crisis and promote fair work for women, the federal government should:

1. Form a Care Economy Commission to study, design and recommend a care strategy for Canada that would:

2. Strengthen and expand employment and labour laws to improve working conditions and address the challenges and needs of women workers, starting with, among others:

3. Prioritize broader access to training and apprenticeship opportunities for women and groups with fewer opportunities including youth, lower skilled workers, workers with disabilities, newcomers to Canada, and workers of colour; and make it easier for low-wage workers to learn new skills by expanding the length and increasing the replacement rate of the new EI Training Support Benefit.

4. Take action to address racism and discrimination at work, improve mechanisms to hold employers accountable for their obligations, and create resources to assist in examining workplace policies and practices for structural and systemic racism, as well as individual racism and discrimination, including unconscious bias, micro-aggressions, stereotyping and prejudice, including by: