Working Together to Curb the COVID-19 “Shecession”


Working Together to Curb  the COVID-19 “Shecession”

COVID-19 has focused attention on countless societal challenges. As we work tirelessly to provide our clients with safe and accessible legal services, one such challenge that has presented itself is that the pandemic is insidiously exacerbating gender inequalities.

Female-dominated industries, including healthcare, eldercare, education, service, and hospitality, are among the hardest hit by COVID-19. While dramatic layoffs in these sectors are partly to blame for the exodus of women from the labour force, that factor in isolation is an oversimplification of the global problem. Women are leaving the workforce in all sectors because the pandemic is causing their support networks to collapse. This trend was propagated as a “shecession” by The New York Times in May and the label stuck.

As the pandemic has forced us into our homes, the tasks of caring for and educating our children have landed disproportionately on the shoulders of women. As stated in an August 17, 2020, CBC News article entitled Pandemic threatens to wipe out decades of progress for working mothers: “While one might think, in 2020, that strain would fall equally on the shoulders of all parents, that’s not what the data shows. During COVID-19, women’s participation in the Canadian workforce has fallen to a level not seen in decades.” Many women have been working and caretaking full time, with little reprieve.

When women exit the labour force due to COVID-19, a ripple effect on their professional and financial goals will be felt well into their future. This, in turn, will hurt the consumer economy. But that is not the end of it. Women bring important and unique skills and philosophies to the labour market, and along with those traits comes innovation. Diversification drives success. As an October 17, 2020, article in TIME magazine entitled If We Had a Panic Button, We’d be Hitting It states: “A 19-year, 215-company study out of Pepperdine University found a strong correlation between companies hiring women executives and their profitability, resulting in 18-69% boosts for the Fortune 500 firms with the best records of promoting women.”

Focusing more narrowly on the legal profession in BC, women leave at higher attrition rates than men. The Mapping Her Path: Needs Assessment Report prepared by The Justice Education Society of BC in 2016, confirmed that only 37% of lawyers in British Columbia are women while women comprise over 50% of law school graduates. In addition to historic levels of attrition, the pandemic is reversing hard-earned progress toward creating more equal and diverse workplaces. This is in large part due to the gender pay gap and systemic gender bias that still exist. In dual income families, it is usually the lesser paid spouse who leaves the workforce to see to caretaking responsibilities.

One silver lining of this crisis, however, is that norms are being challenged at every turn. Firms with no remote work policies have become fully operational from home. Workplaces with nine-to-five office hours are offering flexible schedules, including alternate hours, split days, and reduced workloads. The unconscious bias that having a child playing in the background of your video-conference — or sitting on your lap — means you are less committed to your career, is being confronted.

For many of us, we have been juggling full workloads and caretaking responsibilities for 10 months now, and the strain of the situation is taking a toll. So consider seizing this opportunity for change. As an employer, be mindful of exploring flexible approaches that prioritize diversity and inclusion in the face of COVID-19. As a colleague, be empathetic as parents and caretakers juggle the roles of parent, caretaker, and lawyer. As a parent and caretaker, be vocal about your personal responsibilities and offer solutions to your employer and colleagues that allow you to achieve your goals without burning the candle at both ends. Together, let’s curb the COVID-19 “shecession” and avoid women burning out altogether.