Susanna Kelley (Moderator): The pandemic has been described as a “she-cession” for women: many have been laid off, some have had to quit in order to take care of children because daycares were shut down, others have juggled working remotely while home-schooling their kids. Women have lost a lot of money and are exhausted. What can governments do to help them get back to normal? We asked Sarbjit Kaur, David Wills and Chris Loreto.

Sarbjit Kaur:

The pandemic has exposed a lot of problems. The impact on women has shown that over time, supports have been eroded or not put in place to keep up with the needs of women.

How long have we been talking about childcare options?

These issues don’t fall on any one political party or level of government but now that we have seen the fallout it would be criminal not to take this opportunity to really assess the information and take the time to support women rather than going back to the status quo.

In terms of support, there are immediate actions that can be taken. For example, the Ontario Liberals have committed to introducing $10 a day childcare. Looking at the gig economy, use of temp agencies is critical as women are in these jobs as well. PSWs, nurses — these are all sectors dominated by women. They need proper compensation for the work they do and the risks they take.

Beyond that we need to have a process to see what the long-term impacts are and how we can support women. It’s a process.

Not sure this government has the appetite for it — but it’s necessary. It’s time to start listening to women. For the sake of everyone.

David Wills:

The data is clear – the “she-session” caused by COVID-19 disproportionately impacted women more than it did men. So, it makes sense that whatever measures we take as part of the recovery, those measures should be to the benefit of women first.

National childcare is a great start. I will get my partisan shot in here, reminding everyone that National Childcare was first flagged as a priority in a Royal Commission by a Liberal government in 1967. I am hopeful they mean it this time.

But let’s look at the care sector more broadly.

Affordable childcare will support more women in the workforce. And so will better elder care.

We also need to look at the salaries of those who work in these jobs — mostly women — and ensure they are paid a living wage with benefits and other supports that are more common in male-dominated sectors.

Think about employer-paid sick days, job protections, collective bargaining — all are necessary to create a better economy that respects and empowers women in the workplace.

Sarbjit is spot on — let’s make sure whatever we do makes things better, and resist settling for what it was like before.

Chris Loreto:

I think we will all be on the same page when I say that it is a national embarrassment that the first time national childcare was promised was the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup. Maybe 2021 will be when we finally get childcare and a Leafs Stanley Cup parade.

Fewer women today are participating in the labour force. Women’s jobs were more vulnerable than men’s jobs during the pandemic.

And it wasn’t just the economic costs of the pandemic that hit women harder -—it was also the social costs. I know the sacrifices my wife has made to keep us all afloat during COVID-19. She is lucky to have an understanding employer, but we know not everyone does.

Getting women back into the workforce is not just an economic imperative; it is a moral one as well.

Economically, Canada will not recover unless we recover both employment participation rates and employments rates for women.

Morally, we need to think through what policy measures can be put in place to relieve women of the disproportionate burden of both childcare and elder care. Federal investment in childcare is a good step.

Another good step would be for the feds to become 35% partners in health care and fund eldercare and long-term care through the Canada Health Transfer.

Provincially, Ontario should take up the federal money for childcare and also think through creative ways to support employers in being more flexible with their workforces — allowing women and men to balance family and work.

Sarbjit Kaur:

Beyond the workforce there are other opportunities here.

Many women tried their hand at small business during the pandemic. More than a decade ago when I worked at the Ontario Ministry of Small Business & Entrepreneurship we saw very interesting data showing that women who run businesses (despite getting less support from banks or government) had very high success rates.

In general, our province needs to foster a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation. We spend a lot of money without a lot of analysis of where that money is going and what the return on investment is.

There has been $4.2 billion spent during the pandemic that’s a bit of mystery. Knowing who got funding, support, business support and how much went to women etc. is important. Everyone contributes to those funds and they need to be distributed equitably. And strategically.

We know small businesses generate jobs and are the engine of the economy. If we’re just shoveling money out the door with no idea who is receiving it, what the ROI is and if it’s being distributed equitably — that’s not good government. And a missed opportunity.

David Wills:

Chris makes an important point — too often Canadians, especially women, need to be “lucky” to have an understanding employer. That means we have set the bar far too low when it comes to labour standards.

Too often the interests of the few override what is good for the broader economy and society. We can fix that.

All the heavy lifting has been done on how to make the workforce and economy better for women. As Sarbjit said, governments need to start listening to women.

A recent publication for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives called Women, Work and COVID-19, Priorities for Supporting Women and the Economy, provides an excellent framework. The ideas are not radical — dare I say they are common sense.

There are always excuses by governments to not improve the lives of those who need it most — the economy is in trouble, the economy is recovering, the economy is doing well. It seems like it is never a good time for bold leadership.

I argue that now is the time. People are feeling it, and they want better. They understand the PSWs deserve better wages and working conditions. Paid sick days are a no-brainer to everyone in Ontario except the government caucus.

When we look at all these ideas it is clear what will benefit women the most. And that should be looked at as a good thing and the right thing to do.

Chris Loreto:

We are aligned on the need to do better for women. And I agree, government should listen to women to understand their needs and what policy and program solutions will work for them.

There is no one set of solutions. The solutions will be many and should generally reflect the choices women want to make.

For example, I work in professional services. If a woman goes on a maternity leave and takes 12 to 18 months, the Employment Insurance system is so rigid that she literally has to leave the marketplace for that time — she has to choose — her child or her career.

And I can tell you, for women who have ambitions of being partners in a law or consulting firm, you cannot leave the marketplace for that long. A flexible leave program should allow women to undertake part-time or flexible work if that is what she wants to do. A cookie cutter approach to policy in this respect will just not work.

We can do better. Governments can do better. And employers can do better too. Let’s do better, together.

Chris Loreto is the 1st Vice President of the Ontario PC Party and previously served as Chief of Staff to Ontario’s Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Native Affairs in the Harris government. He is currently Principal at StrategyCorp.  David Wills is a Senior Vice President at Media Profile. He worked as NDP political staff at Queen’s Park and provides counsel to federal, provincial and municipal elected officials. Sarbjit Kaur has worked in Liberal politics for 20 years, including as Director of Communications to a cabinet minister in the McGuinty government. She is a former journalist and currently co -founder of KPW Communications.

The ONW Salon: The Pandemic and Women

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