International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated every year on 8 March. The UN Women’s IWD theme for 2021 is “Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World.” The theme recognizes the disproportionate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, as well as women’s vital contributions at the front lines of the pandemic as health care workers, caregivers and pillars in community organizations.
Similarly, the Government of Canada’s theme for IWD 2021 is #FeministRecovery, which places an emphasis on a gender-responsive and feminist approach to the COVID-19 pandemic recovery.
This HillNote will discuss some of the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected women, as well as gender equality in Canada. The note also addresses the importance of women’s representation in leadership roles, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
How Is the COVID-19 Pandemic Affecting Gender Equality?
IWD 2021 comes almost exactly a year after the World Health Organization characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic. Many organizations, including UN Women, have indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating existing gender inequalities and could reverse progress made in recent decades towards the achievement of gender equality.
Statistics Canada notes that most women continue to work in occupations historically dominated by women. In 2015 approximately 56% of women in the labour market were employed in one of the “5 Cs”: caring, clerical, catering, cashiering and cleaning. The Canadian Women’s Foundation has highlighted the increased health risks women face during the pandemic as a result of their frontline employment and disproportionate responsibility for caregiving, including a high risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) and of facing mental health challenges.
Women are still disproportionately responsible for household tasks, despite an increase in men’s contribution since the beginning of the pandemic. Women also report being disproportionality responsible for homeschooling, a result of pandemic-related school closures. The additional burdens of unpaid care and domestic work, including homeschooling, can lead women to reduce their paid work hours or to leave the labour market.
Women recovered employment at a slower rate than men after the first wave of the pandemic. Data from January 2021, during the pandemic’s second wave, indicate that most of the decline in employment has been among women and youth. Employment losses have been concentrated in industries (accommodation and food services, retail trade, etc.) directly affected by additional public health measures put in place during or after the winter holiday period and can be attributed to declines in part-time employment.
Some stakeholders, including the Government of Canada, have described the economic impact of the pandemic as a “she-cession,” recognizing the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women.
UN Women has stated that, in order to achieve an equal future, “the perspectives of women and girls in all of their diversity must be integrated in the formulation and implementation of policies and programmes in all spheres and at all stages of pandemic response and recovery.” Furthermore, the Interparliamentary Union has indicated that parliaments “should consider legislation that is gender-responsive” and “takes into account other socially differentiated needs.”
Canadian organizations and stakeholders, such as the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Canadian Women’s Foundation, have stressed the importance of using an intersectional feminist approach to the COVID-19 economic recovery. In addition, the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women (FEWO) heard testimony supporting the need for a feminist and gender-sensitive recovery during its study on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women.
In the Speech from the Throne, on 23 September 2020, the Government of Canada committed to creating an “Action Plan for Women in the Economy to help more women get back into the workforce and to ensure a feminist, intersectional response to this pandemic and recovery.” To mark IWD 2021, the Department for Women and Gender Equality announced it would host a two-day summit on Canada’s feminist response and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Women’s Representation in Leadership Positions
UN Women asserts that the diversity of women’s perspectives must be integrated into the development and implementation of COVID-19 pandemic response and recovery policies. Despite representing the majority of frontline workers, women are not adequately represented in decision-making positions with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The organization notes that women’s leadership and participation in decision-making is vital to ensure that their needs are meet by COVID-19 response and recovery plans. However, women continue to face barriers to participation in leadership and decision-making positions.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) recognizes women’s right to participate in public life and in decision-making. Specifically, article 7 of CEDAW indicates that State Parties shall ensure the right of women to participate in the formulation of government policy and to hold public office at all levels of government. Also, target 5.5. of Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals is to ensure “women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.”
Despite these engagements, women remain underrepresented in leadership and decision-making positions in the private and public sectors both globally and in Canada.
In the political sphere, as of 1 January 2021, women represented 25.5% of all parliamentarians globally. In Canada, as of 26 February 2021, women held 49.5% of occupied seats in the Senate and 29.6% of occupied seats in the House of Commons. Although women’s participation as candidates in federal general elections has grown in recent decades, they continue to be underrepresented – women accounted for 34% of the candidates in the most recent federal general election.
Figure 1 – Representation of Female Candidates in Federal General Elections
Source: Figure prepared by the authors based on data obtained from Elections Canada on 2 December 2019; Parliament of Canada, “Women Candidates in General Elections,” Parlinfo; and Parliament of Canada, “Elections and Candidates,” Parlinfo.
During the 42nd Parliament, a number of parliamentary initiatives focused on increasing women’s representation in leadership positions. In a 2019 report, FEWO recommended that the Government of Canada increase funding for organizations and projects that support the political engagement and empowerment of diverse groups of women.
Clare Annett and Dominique Montpetit, The Status of Gender Equality in Canada: Reflecting on the 25th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, HillNotes, Library of Parliament, 1 October 2020.
Dominique Montpetit and Laura Munn-Rivard, The COVID-19 Pandemic and Gender: Selected Considerations, HillNotes, Library of Parliament, 29 April 2020.
Clare Annett, Robert Mason and Laura Munn-Rivard, Health Outcomes During Pandemics in Different Population Groups in Canada, HillNotes, Library of Parliament, 6 April 2020.
Dominique Montpetit, Women in the Parliament of Canada, HillNotes, Library of Parliament, 23 January 2020.
Authors: Clare Annett and Dominique Montpetit, Library of Parliament