G(irls)20 sets out three priorities for policy-makers to help young women left behind by the pandemic

Last year, early in the pandemic, G(irls)20 wrote in First Policy Response about how the COVID-related economic shutdown was leaving young women behind. One year later, what’s changed for young women? What still needs to be done, and what should policy-makers be thinking about as Canada heads into a federal election?

The economic impact of COVID-19 has been described as a “she-cession” due to its disproportionate effects on women. In the first two months of the pandemic-induced recession, 1.5 million women lost their jobs, and while the labour force has somewhat bounced back, recovery has been particularly slow for young women in their 20s — especially newcomers and racialized women.

According to research from RBC, while Gen-Z women make up 2.5 per cent of the labour market, they represent 17 per cent of the total decline in employment during the pandemic. And in January 2021, women aged 20-24 faced an unemployment rate that was six percentage points higher than this demographic group’s peak unemployment rate during the 2008-09 recession. This is because the majority of young women work in the service industry, which has been harshly affected by COVID-19.

Through our work to advance young women in leadership, G(irls)20 has gathered stories about young women’s experiences during this crisis. With a federal election campaign under way, three critical areas have emerged as priorities for policy-makers:

1. Collecting data on young women’s experiences to develop evidence-based policies

COVID-19 has exacerbated existing weaknesses in Canada’s economy and society. Whoever will lead our country next will have to make important decisions in response, with wide-reaching consequences. It is crucial, therefore, that these decisions are informed by data. And this data must include progress on intersectional gender markers.

For instance, the 2021 federal budget’s Gender, Diversity and Quality of Life Statement appendix makes no reference to age or the disproportionate effect of the labour market data on young women. But this data is needed to craft policies tailored to young women’s needs.

When institutions fail to collect disaggregated data about progress on intersectional gender markers, they contribute to the silencing of underrepresented voices and experiences. This absence of data makes it challenging for institutions to identify gaps and to build a case for organizational and systemic change. As noted in our FPR article from last year, we need intersectional, disaggregated data that tell us about the experiences of LGBTQ and genderqueer women; Black, Indigenous and racialized young women; parental status and ability; and much more. We need to understand how opportunities are distributed for youth and how that plays into the larger opportunity gap.

Institutions must adopt policies to track the progress of young women from many diverse backgrounds, identities and lived experiences.

Data can also contribute to diversity and inclusion efforts. At G(irls)20, we work with diverse young women, often early in their careers. We and other civil-society partners see through our work that young women are one of the hardest hit groups in the pandemic, but when there is no significant data to back up our experiences, it becomes challenging to push for change.

Institutions must adopt policies to track the progress of young women from many diverse backgrounds, identities and lived experiences. Applying an intersectional lens to evaluation and learning initiatives is critical to achieving equitable outcomes for underrepresented young women leaders. Collecting data that takes into account young women’s intersectional lived experiences is crucial to creating policies that achieve equitable outcomes for young women.

2. Addressing barriers to meaningful employment opportunities

Over the past few decades, young women have progressed considerably in terms of education. According to Statistics Canada, they are more likely than young men to obtain their high school diploma in the expected timeframe and enroll in post-secondary degrees. Yet, young women — particularly racialized and newcomer women — continue to earn less than young men. In 2017, women 15-16 years and older earned 69 to 89 cents for every dollar earned by men.

This disparity will likely continue given that women predominantly work in industries that are at the most risk of disruption and automation. In fact, COVID-19 has likely accelerated this disruption because it has forced many firms to significantly increase their investments in digital technologies, creating what the World Economic Forum (WEF) calls a “double-disruption” of technology and the pandemic-induced recession.

As we noted in last year’s article, we must ensure that education is not disrupted. But we also need to make sure that young women have the future-proof skills they need to pursue meaningful jobs and withstand the double-disruption. They must have access to continuous education and reskilling programs, not just now, but throughout their lives so they can keep pace with new ways of working. According to the WEF, 50 per cent of all employees will need reskilling in the next five years. To avoid young women being affected by the double-disruption of technology and COVID-19, policy-makers must think of education as a continuous process through an individual’s life.

The lack of women and young women in spaces of power leaves harmful gaps in our responses to crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reskilling programs are a crucial way to provide continuous education and training opportunities for young women so they can gain the skills they need to access meaningful employment opportunities and regain some of the ground they’ve lost due to the pandemic. Currently, however, reskilling programs in Canada are a hodge-podge mix of provincial and federal programs, often with overlapping mandates that create unnecessary barriers to access and hamper their potential effectiveness. All levels of government should work together to provide streamlined, co-ordinated and impactful reskilling pathways. This is crucial to ensure that the double-disruption facing young women does not negatively affect their careers in the short- or long-term.

To offset the pandemic’s impact on young women’s employment, policy-makers should also work to reduce the barriers that prevent young women from pursuing careers in the skilled trades. Skilled trades are a pillar of the Canadian economy and it is estimated that they will represent 40 per cent of jobs created in the next decade. But in 2018, only nine per cent of apprentices in the Red Seal trades, which are designated trades with national standards, were women. And on average, women in skilled trades earn half as much as men, mainly because they are concentrated in lower-paying trades.

Skilled trades present a significant opportunity for young women’s meaningful employment, as 700,000 skilled trades workers are expected to retire by 2028. All of this makes it crucial for policy-makers to reduce the barriers facing women, such as discrimination, difficulties in finding an employer and a lack of mentors. Canada must ensure young women are well positioned to succeed in the trades in order to bring them back into the economy so they can take full advantage of the economic rebound.

3. Increasing young women’s representation within leadership

The lack of women and young women in spaces of power leaves harmful gaps in our responses to crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Young women need to be represented in all task forces, as well as in legislative, policy and budgetary decision-making processes.

Globally, women make up half the population, yet only 25.2 per cent of parliamentary seats in the world are held by women, with less than two per cent held by women under 30. Despite young women supporting and leading activities that call for change, they are underrepresented in public life and disproportionately excluded from consultations on issues that affect them. It’s incumbent on policy-makers to open more pathways to meaningful participation. Through this, the needs and experiences of young women can be properly reflected in the laws and policies that will impact their day-to-day lives.

In order to increase representation of young women in leadership spaces, there must be targeted measures such as skills development, mentorship programs, early exposure to women leaders as role models, financial support and — crucially — support in legislative and policy-making spaces. Policy-makers should involve young women in the development of their platforms and include them in leadership positions so they can craft policies based on young women’s lived experiences that respond to young women’s needs.

As policy-makers put together their platforms for the federal election, they must enable marginalized young women to participate in the policy-making processes and make real decisions. The real opportunity lies in working with young women and then giving them the trust, space and power to lead.

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Almeera Khalid is the former co-ordinator, Advocacy and Engagement, for G(irls)20 and has strategically led G(irls)20 advocacy in international spaces and Canada.

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Hélène Emorine is a G(irls)20 community member and a public policy and global affairs professional with international experience across the public and private sectors.