September marks six months since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic of COVID-19. We’re using this milestone to take stock of the policy response so far and consider next steps as Canada continues to move from reaction to rebuilding. As part of this, First Policy Response is speaking to several policy experts to gather their thoughts on the key policy developments of these past six months, and what they think our next priorities should be.

This interview with Wendy Cukier, founder and academic director of the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, is part of a series of interview transcripts that will run this week and next. You can read the full series here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.


First Policy Response: We wanted to get a sense from you of what COVID-19 has meant for people from underrepresented and marginalized groups in terms of their participation in the Canadian economy.

Wendy Cukier: Well, I think the data is now well known. There were early signs of it, because many of the discrepancies between men and women, between racialized people and not, between people with disabilities [and without], and so on, we had documented prior to COVID, and it was very clear, very early to us that COVID had exacerbated many of those existing divides. And as the data started coming out, it was clearer and clearer that women were twice as likely to lose their jobs. Racialized people were more likely to lose their jobs, partly because of occupational segregation and the fact that women and racialized people are more likely to be in frontline service roles. People with disabilities were left without the kinds of supports they needed on a very fundamental level. We also saw rise in mental health and other challenges across populations. Certainly Indigenous people were inordinately affected, not just because they are often among lower-income groups and furthest from the workforce to begin with, but also 50 per cent live on reserve or in Northern and remote communities where things like internet access are simply next to non-existent. So in addition to lacking basic infrastructure, housing, transportation services, education, and so on, as the world shifted to online, many Indigenous communities were completely left behind.

And then when you started to disaggregate the data, you could see that, for example, Black people were more likely to be affected than, say, South Asians or those who were of Chinese origin. So it’s abundantly clear that pre-existing disparities have been exacerbated.

And then, of course, when it comes specifically to women, the crushing burden of childcare and homeschooling typically fell on them. And that partly accounts for what we see with jobs, but also with entrepreneurs, because women-led businesses are newer, they’re underfinanced, they’re in services sectors, and then you have their leaders burdened with childcare and homecare. And so we saw massive impacts on women-led businesses, as well.

So, I think this is pretty well understood now, but the extent of the impacts, I think, surprised us – the fact that women’s participation in the workforce has been rolled back 30 years. The fact that we really risk losing all of the gains that we’ve made in supporting women entrepreneurs in recent years surprised even people who were paying a lot of attention to this.


FPR: What are some of the potential long-term implications of this? 

I work in a business school, so a huge amount of the work we do looks at the economic implications of increasing participation in the workforce, reducing wage gaps, addressing occupational segregation and the under-representation of women and other groups in high-paid, fast-growing professions, and so on. We have always argued that diversity and inclusion is critical to driving innovation and economic growth. So if we do not address everything that we’re doing through a gender and diversity lens, in my view, we’re really putting everybody’s future at risk. Because it’s like trying to fight a battle with one arm tied behind your back if you’re not paying attention to the impacts on women.

And one of the big ironies for me, as we do a lot of media tracking and discourse analysis, it’s been really interesting because a lot of people have been focusing on the leadership women have been showing, both in the frontlines of fighting the disease, leading our public health agencies and so on. People have been focusing lots of attention on women world leaders who they see as doing a really good job. The prime minister of New Zealand has become a rock star. And yet when you talk about the issues of economic recovery, when you talk about the innovation agenda, when you talk about budget priorities, women are most often not at the table. And that comes out whether you do a media analysis or whether you look at the witnesses called to various parliamentary committees dealing with COVID. You do not see women, for the most part, invited to talk about economic recovery – they’re there to talk about women’s issues.

So I was really pleased to be part of the project that the Ontario Chamber of Commerce released [Sept. 9], which was spearheaded by CEO Rocco Rossi, where he made it absolutely clear, absolutely clear, that this is not a women’s issue. This is about making sure that addressing what they’re calling the “she-covery” is everybody’s issue. And I would argue that’s true whether we’re talking about women or racialized people or Indigenous people or people with disabilities.


FPR: Can you talk to me a little bit more about that report?

I would say that the key thing about the Ontario Chamber of Commerce report is it’s from a major business organization in Canada, and the chamber represents about 60,000 businesses in in Ontario and also links with other chambers across the country. I think it’s the first time a business organization has come out so strongly on the issue of gender and diversity as being critical in the economic recovery. It talks about women in leadership; it talks about procurement as a strategic lever; it talks about childcare and flexible work; it talks about addressing re-skilling and the under-representation of women in engineering and technology and in the skilled trades; it talks about women entrepreneurs. Even though most of these themes we’ve heard before, I think it’s the first time a major business organization in Canada has come out so strongly and said, “We have to address these issues.” We’ve heard about them from, you know, the YWCA and the [Canadian] Centre for Policy Alternatives and many of the equity-seeking groups across the country, the Canadian Women’s Foundation and so on. But now we’ve got a major business organization saying this is not a women’s issue – this is an economic issue for Canada.


FPR: What is the significance of having a business organization say that?

I think that when it comes to creating equitable and inclusive workplaces, if you don’t have employers at the table, it’s very hard to produce the results that you want. So from my point of view, it’s critical that you have employers buy into the notion that inclusive and equitable and flexible workplaces are important. Having employers stand up and say, “Yes, we need a childcare strategy as part of the economic recovery strategy” – I haven’t heard it in many years as strongly as it came out in this report. And certainly having a major business organization say we have to look at the specific needs of women entrepreneurs is also important; and especially the idea of using procurement as a tool to drive change.

And then, of course, we’ve talked for a long time about women in trades and women in technology. I’ve been working on those issues for 30 years and we’ve made almost no progress.  There are fewer women in computer science and only marginally more in engineering today than there were 30 years ago. But again, having a major business organization talk about making that a priority, talk about setting targets and accountability frameworks and transparency, I think that’s very significant. In the same way that we’ve seen major businesses step up, for example, to support BlackNorth and make real commitments as opposed to just focusing on platitudes and rainbow posters.


FPR: How do you think the Canadian federal and provincial governments have done so far on policy to support diverse workers and entrepreneurs through the crisis?

You know, I actually have to say that I think the governments have, for the most part, done a remarkable job of responding quickly and effectively to a crisis, in developing and launching programs in days that previously would have often taken years of consultation and not produced anything. So I’m actually quite impressed, especially as someone who works on innovation and entrepreneurship, to see how quickly governments have moved to respond.

We’ve worked most closely with the federal government around the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy; they launched a number of programs aimed at supporting entrepreneurs. We said, “These are not going to work for women because they’re designed primarily for SMEs [small and medium enterprises], lots in the tech sector. They’re not designed for people who are self-employed, who may not have employees, may rely on contractors and so on.” They pivoted very quickly, changed the thresholds, changed the eligibility requirements. I think they’ve done quite an astonishing job, from my perspective, having worked in public policy for many, many, many years and watched many, many consultations and commissions, and watched a lot of talk and watched how long it takes things to change. Because bureaucracies are designed to preserve the status quo. Bureaucracies are designed to prevent politicians from moving quickly and disrupting decades of tradition. Bureaucracies are designed to slow politicians down. And so the fact that they were able to move so fast is, in my view, quite remarkable. I mean, I never thought I’d say that I think CRA [the Canada Revenue Agency] has been probably one of the most innovative departments through this crisis. So I think it’s important to recognize the achievements of all levels of government.

That being said, if we look at applying a gender and diversity lens to where the money’s going – of course having $5 billion targeting women entrepreneurs [under the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy, expanded from the original $2 billion commitment] is awesome, game-changing, transformative, but it’s a fraction of the money that’s being invested in the regional development agencies, the superclusters research, and innovation broadly in government. So we need to make sure that we’re applying a gender and diversity lens to all the new programming that’s coming out.

“I think we could have a real crisis if people are not paying attention to young people, both those who are in school and those who are not.”

I do think they’ve done some really remarkable things. They announced special programs targeting Indigenous entrepreneurs. They launched a program targeting Black entrepreneurs. In the entrepreneurs space, there’s definitely been a lot of important and business-saving programs that have been introduced. At the same time, we know they’re not reaching everybody. We know that there are still big issues around recovery and the ability for businesses in the services sector who are caught between the plans for reopening and now the resurgence of what seems to be the second wave that everybody had been anticipating, and many are really holding on for dear life.

So there’s certainly places that you could invest more and help more people – certainly from the point of view of self-employed Canadians, who often are not considered in the discussions of entrepreneurship. And we fought really hard to make sure that the definitions were not just small and medium enterprises with employees, but expanded to accommodate people who are self-employed. For people who are self-employed, there are all sorts of issues around portable benefits and shifts to tax policy and so on that could make a big difference in enabling them to be successful and grow. And certainly everybody’s talking how we address childcare, and how we provide appropriate supports for homeschooling and adapting to those new realities. There’s still lots and lots of room for innovation.

And of course I’m very preoccupied with youth and the fact that young people lost their jobs, lost their internships, lost their opportunities to get work experience. Many are really struggling with online learning. Some are flourishing, but many are really struggling, both in the K-12 space and also the university space. So we really have to be intentional in monitoring and understanding what is going on, so we can make sure that we have the appropriate interventions in place. Because I am very worried that we are going to see almost a lost generation, especially if you look at the uneven educational outcomes for young people based on race. In a place like Toronto, you can almost [line up] the map of the colour of poverty with the colour of COVID, the colour of lack of internet access and underemployment and exclusion in school, and you add all those things together. And I think we could have a real crisis if people are not paying attention to young people, both those who are in school and those who are not. Often that falls between the cracks, because technically, education is a provincial responsibility, but right now, the provinces are really preoccupied with rolling out their [school reopening] plans for September. And I think there’s a huge need for, in my view, the federal government to fill in some of the gaps.


FPR: You’ve started to touch on this already, but where do you think the priorities should be for policy as we move into the next phase of the recovery? 

This sounds self-serving, perhaps, but I really think a gender and diversity lens really being applied to everything. This government’s done a lot more at the federal level than we’ve ever seen before in terms of baking commitments around diversity and inclusion into mandate letters and so on. But I’m not sure it’s been coupled with the kind of accountability and tracking and assessments that are really needed to make sure that we don’t have an implementation gap between good intentions and outcomes. So I do think that we need to make sure we’ve got really good evidence, really good data.

I’ve been really pleased with some of the stuff Stats Canada has been able to produce – again, responding very quickly. I do think it has to start with a clear understanding of where we are and what we’re trying to accomplish, as opposed to sort of lurching from one announcement to another. We need a strategy that’s informed by the evidence.

I guess if I were to have to pick, in addition to that really rigorous and systematic application of a gender and diversity lens coupled with accountability, I think the other thing that I would pick is childcare and support for homeschooling, and of course, elder care. Those things together, I think, are huge economic challenges. Those are not women’s issues. Those are not nice-to-do social issues. Those are key to our economic recovery.

I do think that the innovation agenda is important, but I think we have to be sure that we’re not equating innovation simply with technology. Because I think there’s way more space for innovation and it’s not restricted to the Toronto-Waterloo corridor and the tech sector. We have to think about innovation in food production and processing. We have to think about innovation in the services sectors. We have to think about innovation right across industry sectors. And I think there’s a huge opportunity to broaden how we think about innovation in order to make sure that we’re addressing social as well as technological and economic challenges.

I think now is an opportunity that none of us, perhaps, thought would present itself to really rethink the relationship between transportation and communications. I’ve worked for 30 years on telehealth, tele-education and telecommuting, and been frustrated because the technology has been there for decades. And it took COVID to transform universities and health-care facilities and even government to take advantage of the technology. But then, as you become more dependent on technology, you also have to really tackle access to broadband and the digital divide in a very serious way. People think that access to broadband is a rural issue, and it is, but it’s also an issue in downtown Toronto, where people simply cannot afford the exorbitant costs of high-speed internet that’s required to support working at home, and schooling their kids at home, where they can’t afford the devices and where they don’t have the skills to utilize the technology. So again, we have an opportunity to level the playing field, or we run the risk that the divides are going to deepen.


“One of the biggest challenges we have had around diversity and inclusion issues is that often there is a gap between commitments and practices.”

FPR: Another thing that’s happened in the last few months, not necessarily related to COVID, is we’ve seen a renewed focus on racial justice, and especially on anti-Black racism. What do you think policy makers should prioritize as they address the needs of Black and racialized groups? 

Again, I think you need a gender and diversity lens across all of your programs. We know, for example, that all of the issues that I mentioned with respect to women entrepreneurs apply to racialized, immigrant and Indigenous entrepreneurs. So they’re less likely to have small-medium enterprises with employees, more likely to be self-employed, less likely to be in the tech sector, more likely to be in the services sector. When we talk about Indigenous people, they are more likely to be in communities that don’t have access to all kinds of infrastructure. And we also know that diverse entrepreneurs in all of those categories are less likely to have access to financing, less likely to have access to government programs, often because navigating those programs is so incredibly complex. Like, it’s great to have procurement policies and I’m a big believer in procurement as a way of putting your money where your mouth is, so it’s great to say that you’re going to open up the government supply chain, you’re going to encourage large corporations to open up their supply chains to women and diverse entrepreneurs. But if the rules for procurement are so cumbersome and complicated – I just went through a process where I had to have security clearance and a million dollars insurance, and all kinds of things that if I had been on my own, I would never have been able to engage in the process. So again, policy is one thing, implementation is another. And I think that one of the biggest challenges we have had around diversity and inclusion issues, whether we’re talking about anti-Black racism or whether we’re talking about racism targeting Indigenous people, or the whole gamut of forms of discrimination, often there is a gap between assertions and commitments and practices, and I’m a big believer in following the money and making sure that the commitments are actually translating into tangible benefits.

I’m a huge fan of the new legislation, Bill C-25, an Act to amend the Canada Business Corporations Act, which [Minister of Innovation] Navdeep Bains introduced, which is basically a comply-or-explain legislation that will apply to 55 per cent of Canadian corporations. Rather than just federally regulated companies, it will apply to all federally incorporated companies, and require them to report on the makeup of their boards, their senior management teams, and to have a strategy or explain why they don’t [have more diversity]. It’s amazing legislation – world-leading, in fact. But if we don’t have the mechanisms in place to promote implementation, support compliance, ensure that we have reporting and transparency and, frankly, advocacy that leads consumers to make decisions about where they’re going to put their money based on companies’ diversity and inclusion practices – if you don’t have all of those pieces, laws can just be words on paper. So I do think that the speech from the throne, obviously, is important in terms of sending signals, I think policy commitments are hugely important, but if they’re not accompanied with the resources, the implementation strategy and the accountability frameworks, it really doesn’t produce the results.

The one thing that I am very hopeful for, and I started the conversation by talking about this, is we are seeing corporations step up in a very visible way that we haven’t previously seen, especially around anti-Black racism but also on other issues. And if we can hold them accountable, and if we can get them to follow through on their good intentions, that, coupled with government policy, I think will be transformative. Non-government organizations and equality-seeking groups, we’ve been doing this stuff for years and years and years, but if you don’t have government committed to putting its money where its mouth is – whether it’s procurement or who it gives grants to or whose venture funds it matches – coupled with commitments from employers, it’s a lot of talk.


FPR: You mentioned the throne speech – is there anything that you’re going to be looking for in that to address these issues? 

I’m hoping all of the things I talked about will make it in, in one way or another. The key thing is the accountability frameworks and the timeframes and the targets. I love the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy because it was specific. It said, we’re going to try to help double the number of women entrepreneurs by 2025. And whether that’s an aspirational goal – and especially given COVID, whether we can do it or not remains to be seen. But I think we need specific targets and commitments with respect to how we’re spending our money, how we’re ensuring people are not falling between the cracks, and how we’re applying a gender and diversity lens to everything we do.


FPR: Is there anything else you want to add?

I guess the only thing I didn’t talk much about is the whole idea of reimagining work and new frameworks and approaches for work at home. And it’s funny because in the late 1970s, there was a big discussion around telecommuting and transportation, communications, and one of my very first jobs was looking at the extent to which you could replace transportation with technology. At that point it was driven by the energy crisis. It wasn’t driven by environmental concerns – it simply was the price of gas and oil. And here we are 40 years later and suddenly organizations have transformed themselves overnight. A lot of firms are really rethinking how they organize work. That’s going to have massive impacts that I don’t think we understand, or have really thought through, on everything from the restaurants that used to serve businesspeople in downtown Toronto, and all of the people they employed, to the real estate model of mega-businesses, and obviously to the transportation networks and where we live and so on. I think that is big tangle of issues. I haven’t seen anybody start to really think about what possible futures we might see, depending on the different pathways we might take. So I think there’s a macro-level perspective on what new working arrangements might actually mean that really is terribly important and urgent.

At the same time, I think we have to be looking at the firm-level impacts and what it means in terms of workplace policies and support for workers. And not just from the point of view of management processes and policies, but also how we’re paying for home offices, how we’re addressing health and safety requirements, how we’re virtualizing mental health supports and making sure that people have the help that they need.

So I think there’s a whole dimension of the transformation of work that isn’t just about skills – and obviously that’s something I’m quite passionate about, upskilling, reskilling, skilling generally for what is coming. But I do think there’s a very big set of issues that surround the organization of work that require multiple layers of government, industry and others to start serious conversations about.