With so many women forced out of work during the pandemic, what will bring them back?

Canadian women are losing out and have bore the brunt of COVID-19-related layoffs.

Oxfam Canada, an organization focusing on women’s rights and working to end poverty and inequality, said the pandemic has had a harsher impact on women, especially those who had been working in sectors offering lower wages and limited job security.

“Many women-dominated sectors took the biggest hit in the early months of the pandemic,” said Amar Nijhawan, a women’s rights specialist at Oxfam Canada.

“There were more women in the workforce in 1990. Labour force participation has dropped back 30 years.”

Nijhawan said job cuts and reduced hours were most severe in retail, health care and essential services.

The Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey showed women were disproportionately affected by employment losses due to COVID-19 during the period from March 2020 to February 2021.

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As of January 2021, more than 200,000 women fell into long-term unemployment.

“It’s quite a stark figure,” said Nijhawan. “One of the things that we constantly highlight is that women’s unpaid work has increased during this time. Women are off and serving as parents, teachers, caregivers.”

Globally, said Nijhawan, COVID-19 cost women more than $800 billion in lost wages.

“I’m extremely disheartened and I don’t think there’s a single woman I know who hasn’t been impacted by this pandemic.”

In the midst of a federal election, Oxfam Canada called on all party leaders to campaign on policies that will improve work for all women, especially those in precarious low-paying sectors.

A national daycare plan is a start.

Read more: How much parents across Canada could save per year with the national child-care plan

Nijhawan said expensive child care is forcing many women to stay at home, along with a lack of affordable spaces.

Read more: Liberal, Conservative child-care plans ‘disingenuous,’ one critic says. Here’s why

She added paid sick days, higher wages, better social and income supports, along with flexibility in the workforce would also bring more women back.

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Janelle Bieler, president of Adecco Canada — a staffing agency — said there is one stat that “blows me away every time I look at it.”

Between February and October 2020, nearly 68,000 men joined the labour force, while 20,600 women left.

“Some of that was jobs that were eliminated or put on hold,” said Bieler, “but the biggest factors that were driving women leaving the workforce was child care or caregiving issues.”

Bieler added governments and employers must work to to allow for more flexibility. She said women looking to advance their careers or get back to work may be able to use the pandemic as leverage.

“It’s no longer taboo to ask that as a direct question.”

Bieler said the transition period over the past year and a half has reset some expectations.

“The suggestion I always give to anyone who is looking for either more flexibility in their current role or is looking for a new job is to just be direct and say, ‘Help me understand, if it’s your existing company, this is how we’ve been dealing with things for the last 18 months, what is the plan moving forward?’”

She added many companies don’t have the answer to that, but bosses will have to re-evaluate priorities especially if employees start to look for work elsewhere.

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“We’re seeing ‘the great resignation’ in the U.S. and Canada. People are leaving jobs because they don’t have flexibility they need — have become accustomed to certain amount of flexibility.”

The fourth wave has added even more uncertainty for women at work.

Read more: What will Canada’s 4th COVID-19 wave look like? Here’s what the experts, data say

But Bieler stressed even if you’ve been out of the workforce since before the pandemic, you still have a long list of skills to offer.

“They’ve faced adversity, they’ve shown tenacity, they can plan, they can multi-task.

“It’s about ‘flipping the script’ – looking at the things you do well and how can you present that back to an employer and talk about hiring for the skills that you have, not necessarily the job that you had.”

The effects of job losses and women out of the workplace will impact years to come, said Nijhawan.

Not only losing numbers in our economy but the vibrancy of the Canadian workforce.

“The upholding of women’s rights in general is tied to employment and income.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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