24 January 2022, 9:15 a.m.
Public health emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, have socioeconomic consequences that women and men experience differently because of biology, gender norms and inequalities. Understanding these differences is essential to develop policies and interventions that can successfully address the effects of, and recovery from, a pandemic. Ideally, analyses of the socioeconomic outcomes of pandemics should incorporate a range of intersecting identity factors, including gender, age, race, ethnicity and income.
This HillNote will examine two gender-specific socioeconomic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic: the increase in unpaid care work and the effect on employment. It will also examine gender-sensitive policy responses and recovery plans, both internationally and in Canada.
Unpaid Care Work and the Pandemic
Women all over the world, including in Canada, carry out a higher proportion of unpaid care work than men. Gender norms reinforce this situation by influencing the way caregiving activities are distributed within families and by causing inequalities in the workforce.
Societal changes related to the pandemic have led to an increase in unpaid care work, resulting in a growing reliance on women as caregivers. First, school and daycare closures in Canada have had an impact on child care. According to Statistics Canada, women aged 25 to 54 years with children were more affected than men by the challenges related to the pandemic and child care in the first year of the pandemic. Second, the care of adults, seniors and persons who are ill has been affected by a reduction in the availability of health and social services. Persons with disabilities or chronic health conditions who depend on these services for their well-being also require greater support from family and friends. This situation affects women more than men as women make up the majority of caregivers in Canada (54%) compared to men (46%). Certain groups of women, such as Indigenous women, have been affected more than others by this increase in unpaid care work.
During a public health emergency, care work may have negative consequences on the mental and physical well-being of caregivers. They may have to reduce paid work hours, turn down career opportunities or leave paid work altogether to care for their families.
Gender, Employment and COVID-19
Economic downturns, such as the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, can have gendered consequences on employment and economic security that reflect, in part, the gendered division of labour in the workforce. Globally, women workers have been affected by employment loss to a greater extent than men during the pandemic.
Statistics Canada data show gender differences in the patterns of employment loss and recovery since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, driven, in part, by a combination of more women than men working in sectors that experienced shutdowns (such as the services sector) and women reducing work hours due to increases in unpaid care work. When comparing monthly employment figures for the period from March 2020 to February 2021 with the numbers for the same months of the previous year, women accounted for 53.7% of the year-over-year employment losses.
As restrictions on economic activity lifted across Canada, men recovered their employment faster than women. For instance, in July 2020, among those aged 25 to 54 years, men’s employment was 4.4% lower than in February 2020, compared to 5.7% lower for women’s employment. October 2021 data showed that full-time employment among women aged 25 to 54 years had recovered to 1.0% above its February 2020 level, while men’s employment in the same age group was on par with that of February 2020.
Women workers are also overrepresented as essential workers employed on the front lines in the health and social sectors, where women make up the majority of the workforce (70% globally and 81% in Canada). As a result, more women than men faced workplace challenges related to COVID-19: long working hours, shortages of personal protective equipment and other resources, understaffing, and increased exposure to infection and transmission.
Figure 1 illustrates selected examples of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women at both the Canada-wide and global levels.
Figure 1 – The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Women
Sources: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from Karine Leclerc, “Caring for their children: Impacts of COVID-19 on parents,” StatCan COVID-19: Data to Insights for a Better Canada, Statistics Canada, 14 December 2020; Oxfam Canada, Oxfam Testimony to the Status of Women Committee on Women’s Unpaid Work, Briefing note, 3 December 2020; Oxfam International, Time to Care: Unpaid and underpaid care work and the global inequality crisis, Methodology note, January 2020; International Labour Organization, ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work, Updated estimates and analysis, 7th edition, 25 January 2021; René Morissette et al., “Workers receiving payments from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit program in 2020,” StatCan COVID-19: Data to Insights for a Better Canada, Statistics Canada, 2 June 2021; Statistics Canada, “Labour force characteristics, monthly, seasonally adjusted and trend-cycle, last 5 months,” Database, accessed 3 December 2021; Science Table COVID-19 Advisory for Ontario, “Burnout in Hospital-Based Healthcare Workers during COVID-19,” Science Briefs, 7 October 2021; Statistics Canada, “Labour force characteristics by industry, monthly, unadjusted for seasonality (x 1,000),” Database, accessed 3 December 2021; and Statistics Canada, “The contribution of immigrants and population groups designated as visible minorities to nurse aide, orderly and patient service associate occupations,” The Daily, 22 June 2020.
A Gender-Sensitive Response and Recovery
Many international organizations or institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the European Parliament, have outlined the importance of applying a gender lens to COVID-19 pandemic policy responses and recovery plans. For instance, UN Women and the International Labour Organization have partnered to develop policy tools to help countries develop gender-responsive national employment strategies, embed gender equality concerns in national fiscal stimulus packages, and develop strategies for public investments in the care economy.
As well, various actors, including government agencies, not-for-profit organizations and international organizations, have put forward gender-inclusive recovery plans. For instance:
- the Hawai’i State Commission on the Status of Women published Building Bridges, Not Walking on Backs: A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for COVID-19;
- the YWCA Canada and the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto published A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for Canada: Making the Economy Work for Everyone; and
- UN Women published Beyond COVID-19: A Feminist Plan for Sustainability and Social Justice.
The G20 Leaders’ Declaration, adopted in October 2021, states: “We commit to put women and girls, who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, at the core of our efforts to build forward better.”
Government and Parliamentary Responses in Canada
At the federal level, the government has taken steps that are intended to help address the unequal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women. Some of these measures are outlined below.
The Feminist Response and Recovery Fund, launched in February 2021, recognizes that the “pandemic has magnified systemic and longstanding inequalities,” particularly for women. This fund will provide $100 million for a variety of projects to help certain designated groups of women, such as Black women and women living with disabilities.
Both the 2020 Fall Economic Statement and Budget 2021 acknowledged the particular impact of the pandemic on various groups of women and outlined government measures to help address these gender-specific challenges. As well, in its Economic and Fiscal Snapshot 2020, the Government of Canada provided a Gender-Based Analysis Plus Summary of Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan.
According to an October 2020 news release, the government provided $100 million in emergency funding for organizations that offer support and services to address gender-based violence, such as women’s shelters, off-reserve Indigenous shelters and sexual assault centres.
In addition, the federal Task Force on Women in the Economy was established in early 2021 to advise the government on a “feminist, intersectional action plan that addresses issues of gender equality in the wake of the pandemic.”
New and revised federal government policies and programs have also included references to the gender-specific impacts of the pandemic. For example, the Government of Canada announced:
- a Canada-wide early learning and child care system, stating that “the global COVID-19 pandemic has … made it clear that without access to child care, parents – especially women – cannot fully participate in the economy;” and
- new guidance on addressing unpaid and paid care work through international assistance, stating that the government is seeking to “deepen and scale up programming … that recognizes, reduces and addresses the unequal distribution of unpaid and paid care work” because this unequal distribution has worsened during the pandemic.
At the parliamentary level, two House of Commons committees led studies in the 43rd Parliament examining gender considerations during the pandemic.
- In March 2021, the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women tabled a report, Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Women, which acknowledged that “women, girls and gender-diverse people have faced unique challenges during the pandemic.”
- In April 2021, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights tabled a report, The Shadow Pandemic: Stopping Coercive and Controlling Behaviour in Intimate Relationships, whose objectives were twofold: “to raise the profile of this important matter that is exacerbated by the pandemic and to look for solutions to end the violence.”
Annett, Clare and Dominique Montpetit. “International Women’s Day 2021: Ensuring a Gender-Responsive Recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic.” HillNotes.
8 March 2021.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. “Towards gender-inclusive recovery.” OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19).19 May 2021.
Sapala, Magdalena. Gender equality in the Recovery and Resilience Facility. European Parliamentary Research Service. 26 October 2021.
UN Women and United Nations Development Programme. COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker.
Authors: Tatiana Haustant and Laura Munn-Rivard, Library of Parliament