Shivani Danielle Jacelon is an attorney who is originally from Trinidad and Tobago and is currently involved in public interest law.

Before COVID-19, Canada was in a position to boast significant strides by women in the workplace. Through the Gender Results Framework, the federal government put measures in place to advance gender equality in the workplace through key areas such as education, economic participation and poverty reduction. Despite these advancements, the progress made by women in the workplace in Canada was significantly and steadily undone by COVID-19. Although vaccines for the virus have been developed and are slowly being rolled out to the public, this will not bring an immediate end to the pandemic, and it most certainly will not reverse the social and economic effects thereof, the true and long-term impact of which will not be known for some time.

How then, despite Canada’s track record of active efforts and progress, were women’s advancements undone so quickly and dramatically in a matter of months? In answering that question, it is important to recognize that promoting equality in the workplace does not necessarily have the same effect as promoting equity in the workplace. In order to meaningfully advance women’s rights, there must first be a recognition that the current and historic structures of society, which remain deeply steeped in patriarchy, place women in a more precarious position from the outset in terms of job security, opportunity and advancement. In order to promote women’s rights in the workplace, it is necessary to pursue and implement any policies with a gendered lens — on the basis that “human development, if not engendered, is endangered.”

Not all inequality is equal

 According to a recent RBC report, the pandemic has caused the participation of women in the workforce to drop to a low that has not been seen for three decades. The report also notes that the industries which are dominated by women — such as food services, retail and health care — have been the slowest to rebound from the economic impact of the pandemic. Further still, the unprecedented closure of schools caused by the pandemic disproportionately affected women, many of whom left the workforce during that time. This is because women still primarily act as caregivers for children, and without knowing how long remote learning may be required, mothers may decide not to look for new employment while their children still need to be supervised at home.

However, the disadvantages facing women in Canada are not experienced equally by all women, with the most marginalized experiencing the brunt of the pandemic’s effects. In other words, when we look at job losses resulting from COVID-19, we must examine them using a lens of intersectionality. Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality,” defines it as “a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.” Racialized women in Canada have faced higher unemployment than white women during the pandemic.

One of the reasons for this discrepancy lies in the fact that racialized women are the ones that overwhelmingly make up the precarious job market and gig economy, which were hardest hit by the pandemic. Additionally, racialized women, more than white Canadian women, traditionally bear the burden of caregiving for relatives and children. This unequalness of inequality, with double minorities experiencing the most severe impact, gives further credence to the idea that policies must be designed with equity and not necessarily equality in mind. In other words, in order to determine the best way to promote women’s progress in the workforce, the aim should not be to treat all women equally, but rather to recognize their varying circumstances to help achieve equal benefits among those who start with more power and resources and those who don’t.

Moving forward: Gendered policy with an emphasis on intersectionality

In September’s speech from the throne, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made particular mention of the way in which COVID-19 has hit women, and specifically low-income women, the hardest: “We must not let the legacy of the pandemic be one of rolling back the clock on women’s participation in the workforce.” He promised an Action Plan for Women in the Economy to help in achieving this. A key component of this plan is to ensure more “accessible, affordable, inclusive and high-quality childcare.”

While the ostensible benefits of this approach to keeping women in the workforce are plain, does it truly address the substantive inequality and harmful stereotypes and discrimination that women, and especially racialized women, continue to experience in the world of work? In the words of Sandra Fredman: “It is not sufficient for some women to enter the workforce on the same terms as men if women’s caring obligations are simply displaced onto other women, who are often from minority ethnic groups or poor women, and almost inevitably low-paid. Similarly, giving women voice is not sufficient to redress disadvantage if only elite women’s voices are heard.”

In order to determine the best way to promote women’s progress in the workforce, the aim should not be to treat all women equally, but rather to recognize their varying circumstances to help achieve equal benefits among those who start with more power and resources and those who don’t.

In approaching the policies required to continue advancing women’s progress, even in the face of COVID-19, it is necessary to recognize the historical lack of value that the market places on roles primarily carried out by women, such as childcare. As women’s work will continue to be disproportionately reflected in unpaid caregiving, part-time and precarious work, there must be a recognition of the existing societal infrastructures underlying these disadvantages to women. Therefore, in addition to providing affordable childcare for women, a first step may be to promote a shift in social and market attitudes toward the work that women tend to do.

A way to achieve this is to give monetary value to work such as childcare at home, which is traditionally unpaid. This in itself may help to empower the disenfranchised and afford progress to women who may not be in a position to enter the traditional labour market. As Fredman notes, “Socio-economic rights should be infused with substantive gender equality . . . which can address women’s specific disadvantage, protect against recognition- or dignity-based harms, accommodate difference and enhance agency and voice.”

While the approach suggested by the federal government is a good start, in order to effectively move forward into a post-COVID future, pre-COVID social inequalities — especially the additional barriers facing racialized women — must be taken into account.