This commentary by U of G president Dr. Charlotte Yates and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health medical officer of health Dr. Nicola Mercer appeared in the Toronto Star
As we take our first cautious steps out of the global pandemic — a generational event that has cast a shadow during the past two years — we need to talk about what COVID-19 has meant for women.
Women have been the backbone of care during the pandemic. The vast majority of paid care workers in Canada — especially our nurses and long-term care workers — are women. They have cared for Canadians throughout the health care and child care sectors, in our long-term care homes, in our vaccination centres, and as leaders at every level of the pandemic response.
Despite providing this crucial work and leadership to our nation’s pandemic response, women have been left behind during the past two years. Women in Canada were more likely than men to lose their jobs at the onset of the pandemic. And perhaps most concerning of all, we have seen women’s participation in the economy fall to levels we have not seen in more than 40 years.
These effects have been felt even more sharply by racialized women, who experienced higher unemployment rates than their non-racialized peers. Indigenous women were three times more likely to avoid seeking employment as a result of their unpaid care duties supporting their community.
Whether women were working or not, we pressed women into service en masse as home-school teachers and care providers. They have shouldered the lion’s share of at-home learning, with 64 per cent of women compared to only 19 per cent of men being “most responsible” for teaching their children at home.
As we mark this International Women’s Day, we must reflect on what we have learned during the past two years about the importance of the work of women during times of crisis, and bring forward a renewed commitment for change.
We must be purposeful and act with urgency to address the immediate repercussions of the pandemic on women. We must dismantle the systemic issues that drove these impacts on women over the past two years and continue to impede our progress.
We must re-examine and reimagine our organizations — public, private and not-for-profit — and reshape them to be profoundly more equitable and diverse. More than that, we must identify our own habits and ways of thinking — whatever our gender — that contribute to a less equitable society.
When we write or speak about women, our words must focus on their ideas and strategies instead of their appearance. Importantly, empowering women in their professional lives also means empowering them in their choices outside of work such as starting — or not starting — a family.
This means providing access to quality, affordable child and elder care options so women — and their partners — have choices about balancing work and caring responsibilities. And women in the workforce need our employers to provide meaningful mentorship and career growth opportunities, especially for those women who belong to multiple historically marginalized groups. We need all women to succeed.
Celebrating the profound ways in which women provided care during the global COVID-19 pandemic must involve more than the conjuring of nice words and the banging of pots and pans. The pandemic has demonstrated that without women the results would have been very different for all of us. Let’s use that knowledge as we recover from the pandemic.