Decoding the She-session: What did the downturn do to women’s work?

Twenty-year-old Shannon Smeaton is looking for a job that'll let her take care of two-and-a-half-year-old Emma. Supplied

Shannon Smeaton is in a bind.

The 20-year-old can’t work a full-time job while caring for her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, can’t find a part-time job with hours that’d accommodate her schedule, can’t find full-time daycare that would free her up to search for steady work.

“I really want to find a job but I have to find a daycare for my daughter first,” Smeaton said. “I’ve applied to a few places online but there’s nothing really available for the times I can work at this point. So I’m just kind of waiting until Emma is in full-day daycare. Then I can start applying again.”

And finding a daycare is proving to be a task in itself. As Emma’s name sits on several daycare lists, Shannon will have to stay on financial aid through Ontario Works and the Canada child tax benefit.

Smeaton’s situation will sound all too familiar for almost one in five single mothers in Ontario (far more, if  you include those who have a job, but not enough to support themselves and their families). They were disproportionately unemployed and underemployed well before the 2008 recession, even more so since.

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But it’s not just single mothers who are experiencing rough economic times; the employment rate among young women in general dropped steeply, according to a report released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives examining persistent inequities in women’s employment in Ontario.

For Kate McInturff, the study’s author, it was essential to explore the effects of the recession on women since most of what was being reported was in male-dominated fields.

“Some of the coverage of what happened initially during the recession focused, very understandably, on job loss in manufacturing, for example, which is largely a very male-dominated industry” McInturff said.

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“So we were seeing a lot of jobs lost by men and so that kind of spurred the conversation around, is this a ‘he’ session, the recession for men? So then the question for me was, ‘What does this look like for women?’ And since we’re now several years out of the recession, are we seeing recovery that looks the same for women?”

The results showed a disconnect between what women and men are experiencing in the recession’s recovery.

“Men and women are in very different places in the job market and labour force,” McInturff said . “And that was true before the recession, during the recession and coming out of it. So that means that if we are going to have economic policies work for our whole population, we need to think about what those differences are and how we address them.”

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The report reveals that young women have been hit hardest. The employment rate among young women dropped eight percentage points, even as more women aged 65 to 69 are working than ever before.

“The majority of those women who are working in that age group are working full time,” said McInturff.

That could be a good thing, if they’re working by choice.

But “I think that points to the inadequacy of pension incomes. Traditionally, senior women over 65 have tended to have higher levels of poverty than do men because over their lifetime, women have lower levels of employment, they’re working fewer hours of paid work. They tend to have lower retirement incomes as a consequence. So I really think we’re seeing women over 65 trying to cope with that.”

And according to McInturff, women are more likely to obtain temporary, part-time or contract work as opposed to secured full-time employment.

“Childcare is a huge piece of that,” she said. “There are a lot of women in part-time work who are looking for full-time work and not finding it. … If you look at women with low incomes and single mothers who clearly are needing paid work, the fact that they’re not getting it tells me that they’re out there looking for it and they’re not getting it. Why they’re not getting it, why employers aren’t hiring them, I can’t say.”

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The answer to boosting women’s employment rates, McInturff is convinced, is safe, affordable and accessible childcare. She points to Quebec, with its $7 a day daycare.

“We have over 10 years of statistical records and the research by economists into the impact of subsidized affordable childcare in Quebec shows that women’s employment levels go up, the GDP of Quebec went up and the revenues of the government went up because those women are in the labour force, paying taxes, purchasing goods and services which increases GDP.”

If other provinces follow in Quebec’s steps, she said, they’d see similar economic benefits.

In the meantime, Smeaton’s still searching, for “any part-time job that will take me. Cashier, hostess, waitress. Something simple for now until I decide to go to college,” she said, where she hopes to study youth and child education.

“Hopefully [Emma] will be in daycare by the summer and I’ll be able to get a day job.”

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