The call for action by both the public and private sectors against the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women and gender-diverse populations has been growing louder — within workplaces, within families, and now, from the Government of Canada. Chrystia Freeland’s historic first budget, Canada’s first tabled by a female finance minister, acknowledged that “long-standing gender inequities have only been amplified over the course of the pandemic — and it has put decades of hard-fought gains for women in the workplace at risk.” Since the start of the pandemic, more than 16,000 women have dropped out of the labour force completely, while the male labour force has grown by 91,000 people.

The pandemic has presented many industries with unprecedented hardship, but also with a unique opportunity to rebuild workforces from the ground up and toward a more equitable future. Governments must set the policy direction and the private sector must embrace the change from strategic planning to implementation, to monitoring and accountability. Incentives should be created to ensure gender equity is embedded throughout an organization.

Women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the COVID-19 crisis than men’s, and women make up 39 per cent of global employment but account for 54 per cent of job losses, according to a recent McKinsey report. A UN report noted that unpaid care work has increased, and not surprisingly, the burden has fallen disproportionately on women. Action, undoubtedly, is needed now.

Whether it be flexible work policies that allow for childcare commitments, the ability to take increased paid or unpaid leave, or strong maternity and paternity leave, change must be tangibly felt by those who need it — and soon.

The impacts of women leaving the workforce are far-reaching. A mass exodus could spell trouble for years of hard-fought shifts in gender norms and family dynamics. It would also represent a profound loss of expertise in industries staffed heavily by women, such as healthcare and education — meaning a significant reduction in available resources to fill gaps in talent as post-COVID economies recover.

A landmark national survey found that one-third of Canadian women have seriously considered quitting their jobs during the pandemic, particularly based on the need to handle commitments to their children, homes and families. This is unavoidably worse for already marginalized segments of the population, where the overrepresentation of young, racialized women in front-line care roles has left these populations particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Canadians now have an extremely high debt-to-income ratio, something that could be exacerbated by previously dual-income households transitioning to single-income as women withdraw from the workforce. Statistics Canada found that household debt as a percentage of disposable income rose to 170.7 per cent in the third quarter of 2020. Paired with the record rise in mortgage borrowing and housing investment, and a mortgage debt in Canada of nearly $1.63 trillion, Canadians cannot afford to see a permanent loss of women from the workplace. Withdrawing from the workforce also means more women and families retiring in poverty — particularly considering around 80 per cent of single-parent families are led by women.

While the government can help working women by developing and instituting basic standards for workplace protections, and benefits such as the Canada Child Benefit, it cannot alone drive the change needed to shift workplace norms.

When it comes to solving issues for working women, change will happen more rapidly if the onus is put on the private sector to work toward meaningful workplace equity. Whether it be flexible work policies that allow for childcare commitments, the ability to take increased paid or unpaid leave, or strong maternity and paternity leave, change must be tangibly felt by those who need it — and soon.

In making good on its call for a feminist recovery, the federal government should commit to a joint fund, preferably matched by provincial dollars, to allow workplaces to conduct gender equity assessments, much like the sustainability and environmental, social and governance (ESG) audits that have become more prevalent. While ESGs are useful tools, they do not go far enough in capturing the nuance of women’s experiences in the workplace holistically.

We are at a crossroads where, socially and economically, the private sector cannot afford to ignore changes around gender equity. With uncontested economic benefits for ensuring women’s participation in the post-COVID economy, and a federal electorate of more than 50 per cent women, the federal government is best situated and incentivized to drive this change. Particularly as Budget 2021 proposes that Crown corporations will be required to implement gender and diversity reporting, it is high time that the private sector do the same.