One-third of working mothers in Canada have thought about quitting their jobs during the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to a recent national survey.
The survey, conducted by Pollara Strategic Insights for The Prosperity Project — a newly formed gender-equality volunteer organization with a mission to soften the impact of the pandemic on Canadian women — found the weight of homemaking, child care and schooling during the COVID-19 lockdown fell disproportionately on women. And many who were also juggling professional responsibilities thought about leaving their jobs.
While working parents, in general, said they experienced high stress without being able to count on daycares and schools, working mothers were significantly more likely to say they contemplated dropping out of the workforce. Less than one-fifth of fathers said they considered putting their career on pause, according to the data.
Do not quit, employment lawyer says
Questions from working parents — and particularly working mothers — about asking for accommodations from employers or whether they should leave their jobs have become “a significant portion” of employment lawyer Deborah Hudson’s workload since the pandemic started, she says.
Her advice, she says, is: “Do not quit. Do not quit.”
There are many options workers and their employers can explore together to find a workable arrangement in these extraordinary circumstances, Hudson says.
If someone in the family has a medical condition that makes sending the kids to school or daycare particularly risky, you might be entitled to special accommodations based on medical or human rights grounds, Hudson says.
And while employees have a duty to make a “reasonable effort” to secure child care, many facilities remain closed, Hudson notes.
“There’s still a shortage,” she says.
Workers who choose to keep their children home even when daycare and school attendance are available might have fewer legal rights to continue a job leave, Hudson says.
However, she notes, this is the first pandemic of our lifetime, and there are no tried cases yet based on what we’re currently experiencing.
“When we talk about child care and family status accommodations, we’re not talking about this exact circumstance. And so employees might have more leeway to try to negotiate accommodations,” she says.
Parents should still ask for “practical solutions,” Hudson advises.
For example, could parents continue to work from home? Could they scale back to part-time hours or take on a modified schedule? An unpaid leave of absence of two to three months is also an avenue worth exploring, Hudson says.
Even being laid off may be preferable to quitting, Hudson says.
“If an employee is terminated, the employer has to pay them notice,” she says. And they’ll be able to access Employment Insurance, if eligible, she adds.
Quitting, on the other hand, leaves you with no safety net — either from your company or the government.
If workers feel they can’t reach a compromise with their employers and are thinking about quitting or concerned about being terminated, they should seek legal advice, Hudson says.
A problem for the broader economy
Working mothers leaving their jobs isn’t just a concern for gender-equality or family finances, it’s a trend with worrying consequences for the entire economy, says Pamela Jeffery, founder of The Prosperity Project.
Women attending to homeschooling instead of working means significantly reduced incomes for many families and a hit to discretionary consumer spending, a key engine of the Canadian economy, Jeffrey says.
“This is a conversation not only about who does what at home, but how long an economic recovery is going to take,” she says.
Jeffrey isn’t the only one linking mothers’ ability to keep their jobs to the fortunes of the post-lockdown economic rebound.
Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem recently warned the disproportionate financial impact of the pandemic on women — along with youth and low-wage workers — could lead to a more drawn-out recovery and leave a lasting mark on the labour market.
Women’s participation in the workforce, which was closing a long-standing gap with men’s before the pandemic, fell during the lockdown and “is not recovering as quickly as the male participation rate,” Macklem recently said.
How quickly parents, and especially women, will be able to return to the labour market “depends on how the reopening of schools plays out and whether at-home learning arrangements allow parents to work,” he added.
Other countries are grappling with a similar dilemma.
The ‘guilt gap’But while a lack of child care has affected both men and women during government-mandated shutdowns, it was mothers who disproportionately sacrificed their careers in order to fill the gap, a number of studies have found.Household stereotypes about women being primarily responsible for child care, grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning have become an even larger barrier to female employment during the pandemic, Jeffery says.READ MORE: A second coronavirus lockdown in Canada? Experts discuss the likelihoodWomen were more likely than men to feel guilty about not spending enough time with the kids, The Prosperity Project survey found. Mothers were also likely to experience higher levels of stress about having to divide their attention between job and kids.“Women feel more guilty about not spending as much time with their kids than men,” said Pollara vice-president Lesli Martin. “They are also likely to feel more stressed about having to focus at the same time on work and family responsibilities and more willing to give up job opportunities or promotions because of it.The IMF paper dubbed this phenomenon “the guilt gap.”READ MORE: Coronavirus, allergies or a cold? How to know if your child should stay home from schoolThe research, which was conducted before the pandemic and was based on a survey of nearly 1,000 working-age Japanese men and women, found that women are consistently more likely than men to want to trade wages for better work-life balance.For example, for certain age and salary ranges, the paper found Japanese women would give up roughly $6,500 in earnings more than men to avoid having to work a significant number of overtime hours every month.But the researchers also reported women’s higher willingness to accept lower earnings was driven in part by feelings of guilt.The paper, one of its authors recently mused in a blog post, is especially relevant amid COVID-19.The disruptions of the pandemic have helped “solidify a universal truth,” she wrote: “Women rather than men often face greater responsibility and guilt for being neither the ideal mother nor the ideal employee.”
Pollara Strategic Insights conducted an online survey on behalf of The Prosperity Project. It surveyed 1,001 adult Canadians between August 21 and 24, 2020. The margin of error is ± 3.1 per cent, or 19 times out of 20. The survey used demographic and regional quotas, and the data was weighted based on census Census data to ensure the sample reflects the actual population of adult Canadians.