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Welcome to the ‘she-session.’ Why this recession is different

The pandemic-induced recession is hurting women
The pandemic-induced recession is hurting women​

In 2009 Trish Hennessy and Armine Yalnizyan coined the term “he-cession” in Canada. Men were clearly bearing the brunt of the recession triggered by the 2008 financial crisis, they noted in a paper for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The downturn had hit the manufacturing sector hard, especially in Ontario, with more than 70 per cent of the unemployed made up of male workers, they noted.

That’s the way recessions have historically worked in Canada, says Yalnizyan, now a fellow with the Atkinson Foundation. Whether it’s a financial crisis, trade disruption or natural disaster to throw the economy into a funk, the first industries to feel the impact of the contraction are typically the goods-producing sectors — manufacturing, constructions and natural resources — which tend to be male-dominated.

READ MORE: Canada has slipped into recession due to COVID-19, C.D. Howe council says

But the recession caused by the COVID-19 lockdown is different, according to Yalnizyan, who has advised the Trudeau government on economic matters. She calls this the first “she-session.”

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Canada’s employment dropped by more than one million in March — and female-dominated service-sector jobs were among the first to disappear.

As schools, childcare centres, hotels, restaurants and shops shut down, women accounted for 62 per cent of the jobs lost between late February and March, says Tammy Schirle, a professor of economics at Wilfrid Laurier University. In aggregate, women also lost around 50 per cent more work hours than men during the same period, Schirle notes.

“It is very very clear that the brunt of this recession has been borne by women, at least at that initial stage,” Schirle says.

The impact of the lockdown evened out between the two genders in April, according to Statistics Canada’s latest batch of data.

Steep job losses in typically male-dominated sectors like construction and manufacturing helped bring the total number of Canadians who’ve lost their jobs since the start of the lockdown to a mind-boggling three million.

READ MORE: Canada shed 3 million jobs between April and March amid COVID-19, StatCan says

But economists like Yalnizyan and Schirle remain worried that women will face a tougher struggle in this downturn.

Usually, “he-cessions” are followed by women-led recoveries, or “she-coveries,” Yalnizyan says.

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Spikes in male unemployment would historically result in increases in the female workforce participation rate, with women taking up service-sector jobs to help support household incomes, she notes.

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This was true even in the 2008-2009 recession when female workers already made up half of the labour force. Back then it was women aged 55 and over, who provided “the only juice in the system,” mostly by joining the ranks of the self-employed, Yalnizyan says.

Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau extends emergency wage subsidy, says government will remain flexible to needs of Canadians
Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau extends emergency wage subsidy, says government will remain flexible to needs of Canadians

This time, however, Yalnizyan believes the she-session will give way to a “he-covery,” with men more likely to go back to work first.

Schirle shares the same concern.

“Recessions are defined by both depth and duration,” she says — and this downturn could be a long slog for many female workers.

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One issue is that women are more likely to have jobs that involve a lot of human interaction and make social distancing difficult, Schirle says. That’s why some of the same female-dominated sectors that were the first to shut down may also be the last to re-open and recover, she adds.

Another question is how many of those jobs will come back at all, according to Yalnizyan.

Many restaurants may not survive if they’re required to operate at half capacity, she notes. Businesses like hair and nails salons, yoga centres and massage clinics may not be able to weather a prolonged shutdown and slow recovery, as cost-conscious consumers trim back discretionary spending, she adds.

Historic unemployment job numbers for Canada and the U.S.
Historic unemployment job numbers for Canada and the U.S.

Then there’s the issue of childcare.

Women need someone to watch the kids to be able to return to work — and Canada needs female workers back on the job in order to stage a full recovery, Yalnizyan argues.

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That’s why the classic post-recession prescription of pouring government money into shovel-ready projects — while useful to revamp Canada’s aging infrastructure — will do little to revive the economy this time, she adds.

But providing childcare while keeping up social distancing for a prolonged period of time could be complicated, says Lindsay Tedds, a professor of economics at the University of Calgary.

If we were adamant we have these social distancing rules for a number of years, we don’t have enough schools,” Tedds says. “We don’t have enough teachers. We don’t have enough early childhood educators.”

And while Quebec has plans to gradually re-open some schools with strict social-distancing rules in place, it remains to be seen whether parents will feel comfortable sending kids back to the classroom.

READ MORE: Quebec delays reopening of Montreal schools, daycares and stores as coronavirus cases rise

“People are twitchy about it and reasonably so,” Yalnizyan says, speaking in general about school re-openings.

There’s also the question of whether women, who are more likely to work part-time, will be able to find and afford childcare when they have the opportunity to return to work, Schirle says.

There is expected to be a strong feedback loop on that,” Schirle says.

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“If you aren’t able to return to work because of child care, … you’re going to be taking even a much larger interruption in your career. And that could have long-term consequences that will last for years.”

A lack of childcare is also taking a toll on women who still have jobs, Tedds says. Women are more likely to have to bear most of the burden of juggling work and kids at home, which may disproportionately affect their productivity and, possibly, career prospects.

One sign of that has already emerged in the world of academia, where editors at peer-reviewed journals have noticed a drop in research papers submitted by female scholars and a significant jump in those sent in by their male colleagues.

Those differences could have long-term implications for young academics’ ability to secure tenure, Tedds says.

The health crisis has made it clear just how essential schools, early-learning education and supports for parents are for the economy as a whole, Tedds argues.

“If we don’t consider this, we run the risk of setting women back decades.”