Women bearing the brunt of economic losses: One in five has been laid off or had hours cut

Women are at the forefront of the economic crisis as yesterday’s labour force report from Statistics Canada reveals.  

In March, employment among women aged 25 to 54 years fell by 298,500, more than twice the decrease among men. Nearly half of this decrease (144,000) was among women working part-time, many in low paid service and care work who were already living on the financial edge before the pandemic struck. 

Women make up just under half (47%) of all workers, but account for two-thirds (63%) of all job losses.  Among workers in the core demographic aged 25 to 54 years, women represent 70% of all job losses.  

The largest proportional losses were among youth (aged 15 to 24 years), accounting for almost 40% of total jobs losses in March. Young women have experienced the majority of these losses (at 59%), and over one-third of all job losses reported by women (36%). 

Unemployment and Loss of Hours
Job losses of this scale have pushed up the unemployment rate among women by 3.4 percentage points over the space of a month. In March, 8.7% of all women reported being unemployed, the largest one-month increase on record.

Another 1.2 million women have seen at least half of their hours cut. This includes the many women working contract to contract, in precarious low wage jobs, as personal care assistants, cleaners and cashiers—a group that is not currently eligible for Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). 

Altogether, over 1.8 million women have lost their jobs or lost at least half of their usual hours of employment. Average hours of employment among all female workers dropped from 30.1 per week in February to 24.8 hours in March, a decrease of 5.3 hours. By comparison, the decrease among male workers was only 3.9 hours. 

Another way of looking at this is to track the number of dual earner families. In March 2020, there was a decrease in the number of spouses or partners living in dual earner families and an increase in single and non-earner couples by 918,000 (or +11.7%).

Women leaving the labour market
As stark as they are, the unemployment figures don’t include those who have left the labour market altogether and are now at home caring for children or others who are ill with no prospect of immediate return. 

Between February and March there was a significant increase in the number of women “not in the labour market.” Among core-aged women (aged 25-54 years), that number grew by 145,800 (or 10.5%).  

This is a number that bears watching, along with the employment rate. The employment gap between men and women among core aged workers—a key indicator of gender (in)equality—is already widening by 2.8 percentage points in a single month (from 91.7% to 88.9%). Many of these women leaving the labour force will be involved in child care and home schooling. Others will be caring for relatives who are ill. Will women return to the labour market—and in what capacity? Or will this crisis end up turning back the clock on gender equality?

Beneath the headlines statistics
In mid March, large swaths of the retail, food and accommodation sector were laid off in a single week. Civil servants were sent home—while others in the community sector are now struggling to deliver desperately needed services with skeleton staffs. With few exceptions, women again account for the majority of losses, and in some instances, such as care providers, health care technicians, and office support workers, the overwhelming majority. 

Yesterday’s labour force release identifies the public-facing industries and occupations that were hardest hit in this first wave of closures and layoffs. This includes accommodation and food services (-25.6%), information, culture and recreation (-16.6%), educational services (-10.4%) and wholesale and retail trade (-7.4%). In all of these sectors, women account for the majority of losses. 

In some sectors such as health care and social assistance, finance, insurance, real estate, rental and leasing, and business, building and other support services, women account for almost 100% of the losses

Losses have been heaviest among certain types of jobs such as sales and services occupations. At 600,000 jobs, this group of workers accounted for 59% of all job losses posted in March. 

There were also large job losses among those employed in educational services (-64,400), paraprofessionals in legal, social and community services (-50,100), and caregivers in support occupations (-37,600). Nine percent of those employed in technical occupations in health (-31,500) and five percent of those in occupations in support of health services (-17,500) experienced job loss. Those working in art, culture, recreation and sport have also reported a significant decline in employment (-88,700). 

With few exceptions, women again account for the majority of losses, and in some instances, such as care providers, health care technicians, and office support workers, the overwhelming majority.

Among senior managers,  men experienced employment gains even as the number of women employed dropped—resulting in an even larger employment gap. Efforts to increase women’s representation at leadership tables seem to be falling by the wayside. 

A harbinger of things to come
Given the timing of the March labour force survey, we won’t get the full picture until next month. But as my colleague, David MacDonald, notes these figures are “a harbinger of things to come as the unemployment calculations catch up to what’s actually happening to Canadian workers.” 

We are shutting down key sectors of the economy, as we must, to contain the devastating impact of the coronavirus and protect our collective future. The costs will be high—especially for women. And we know the people facing intersecting forms of discrimination will suffer the largest and most profound losses and have the greatest difficulty springing back after the crisis.  

Which is why it is critical to understand and document the gendered dimensions of the economic crisis—and take immediate action to make the changes necessary in the emergency income programs now rolling out to extend support to the hundreds of thousands who soon won’t be able to meet their basic needs. It is also the moment to lay the foundation for a more gender equal and inclusive world for tomorrow.

The temptation will be to say that gender is a side issue to the real crisis. There are a 1.8 million reasons why that couldn’t be further from the truth.  


Katherine Scott is a Senior Economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Follow her on Twitter @ScottKatherineJ