Canada | Economy

Combat the ‘she-cession’ and help women thrive in the labour force with these three tips

Returning women to the workforce is essential for a successful economic recovery in Canada, experts say

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Businesswomen looking at fabric samples on presentation boardOrganizations should provide opportunities for women to re-enter the workforce seamlessly by encouraging career advancement (Getty Images/Morsa Images)

Since COVID-19 began, numerous studies have shown the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on women and their participation in the labour force.

After reporting that 1.5 million women lost their jobs in the first two months of the recession, RBC followed up in November 2020 with another report indicating that men gained jobs back at three times the rate as women. According to the report, between February and October last year, more than 20,000 women were left out of the workforce, whereas 68,000 men joined it. 

The suggested reason? While men are benefitting from the growth of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields, women are saddled with childcare demands, exacerbated by lockdowns and school closures.   

A survey by the Prosperity Project also reported that one-third of Canadian women considered quitting their jobs due to elevated domestic stress. In finance, specifically, according to research by Toronto-based Women in Capital Markets (WCM), nine per cent of Canadian women working full-time in capital markets had considered leaving their jobs while another nine per cent considered taking a leave of absence. 

While we await a brighter horizon, experts agree that organizations can play a critical role in ensuring women return or stay in their jobs and the workforce.

Here are three things businesses can do to help. 


When women temporarily leave the workforce, finding re-entry points can be challenging, experts say.

“The on- and off-ramps have always been difficult for women,” says Pamela Jeffery, leader of the Prosperity Project, a not-for-profit organization working to mitigate the negative impacts on women of COVID-19.  “When on-ramping, I’m thinking, ‘I’ve been on maternity leave, how do I get back in?’ and, if I’m at work and want to have a baby, [I’m thinking], ‘how do I off-ramp?’” 

When women do re-enter the workforce, they often lose ground career-wise and may even find themselves demoted—or at the very least, stagnant—in their roles, says Camilla Sutton, managing director of Equity Research, BMO Capital Markets, former president and CEO of Women in Capital Markets (WCM). This, she adds, could prove more challenging out of COVID-19, with no clear end to the pandemic or insight into how long the economic recovery will take.

“It’s not an easy process to step back into your career ... over time, women [can] miss important moments in their careers, where they would be taking on bigger opportunities and growing within the organization,” she says. “To see this [occurring] on the back of COVID could really put [women] back much more time than what they take out of the workforce.” 

In response, organizations should provide opportunities for women to re-enter the workforce seamlessly by encouraging career advancement.   

WCM, in partnership with Canada’s financial institutions, started to do this in 2010 when it introduced its Return to Bay Street Award Program (RTBS), which aims to retain female talent in capital markets by ensuring those on leave, particularly due to family obligations, return to the mid- to-senior roles they’ve left, while receiving other professional support.

These include access to WCM’s programming, education grants for skills development, opportunities to develop professional networks, industry knowledge and work experience. According to WCM, RTBS has brought 73 experienced women back to the industry with 76 per cent planning to remain in the industry, 32 per cent receiving promotions and 84 per cent having made career progress in their firms.   


In addition to simplifying the return to work, employers can implement additional support programs to accommodate their female staff’s unique situation and find balance between work and personal obligations. 

“Employers have a huge role to play in terms of making sure that their managers are having the conversations with their with working moms and dads and, where possible, providing accommodations,” says Jeffery.

A recent Ontario Chamber of Commerce report, The She-Covery Project: Confronting the Gendered Economic Impacts of COVID-19 in Ontario, outlines recommendations to address immediate and longer-term challenges for women due to COVID-19.

The report encourages organizations to implement workplace initiatives for female staff, including skill defining and development, as well as enabling them to use their skills to their full potential. Areas of focus should be in skilled trades, technology and engineering, it says. Other support programs include offering more flexible work arrangements, which level out the playing field for women while also improving organizational outcomes. 

“Companies can play a much bigger role in being very transparent around their policies,” says Sutton. “One of the most concerning pieces we’re seeing is in both the mental- [and] physical-health space.” 

The report also recommends a system-wide reform to childcare, improving access and affordability, as well as increased support for diverse female entrepreneurs who are working outside the traditional labour-force framework.   


COVID-19 has the potential to not only set back the headway made in recent years with gender equality, but to diversity and inclusion efforts as well, says Sutton.

It’s ground lost that won’t be easily recovered, she adds. 

“Decades of work has been done trying to make sure that some of the barriers that women face are lowered ... to see us lose such an important group of talent at such a critical time would be heart-breaking in terms of those working in the diversity [sphere],” she says. “We need diversity in the sector to thrive.”

In response, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce recommends organizations commit to setting collective targets, from both a leadership and accountability standpoint, rewarding diversity, including women in decision-making bodies, and applying a gender and diversity lens to strategies, policies and programs for recovery.

“COVID has spotlighted many different levels of inequality across society and the workplace is no different,” Sutton says. “The learnings that are coming from that are really important to accelerating the progress we're making with equity, diversity and inclusion.”

This requires organizations to scrutinize their current policies, analyze the data, and make necessary adjustments to policies, procedures and programs from there, adds Jeffery. It’s an issue that requires immediate, steadfast attention if we are to revive prosperously on the heels of the pandemic, she says.

Ideally, Jeffery adds, employers will look at their data, assess, at every level, the representation of women in their workforce pre-pandemic and pledge to match or improve that level of representation moving forward.

“It’s so important for us as Canadians to understand the important link between women and the prosperity of our country... [if we don’t], we’re not going to have the economic recovery that we all need.”


Feeling pandemic burnout? These tips will help you get back on track. And, with doors shut again in some provinces, here are signs your business may be in trouble.