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Monday, April 15, 2024
The ‘She-Covery’: Women’s employment rebounds post-pandemic, but challenges remain
Mishka Balsom, president of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, says women have largely rebounded from the pandemic, which had a disproportionately negative impact on women. SUPPLIED
After nearly one year at her first job after graduation, Julia Ventresca says she's enjoyed working for a company that supports its employees' well-being and offers flexible work arrangements. SUPPLIED

As Julia Ventresca was preparing to graduate from Brock University last spring, job prospects seemed few and far between — especially for an English language and literature major.

“I was definitely very nervous entering my post-grad era,” she says.

However, just as she was wrapping up her final classes, she landed a full-time position as a membership services representative and donor manager with the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

She hopes to celebrate her first year on the job in April.

“It’s been wonderful,” she says.

Ventresca is among thousands of women who have found their place in the workforce after the pandemic saw the female labour participation rate sink to a historic low.

Now, with the female employment rate in January 2023 hitting a record high of 82 per cent, women have made a successful recovery back into the workforce in what some are calling the “She-Covery.”

“Women’s employment has rebounded from the loss that we experienced in 2020 and 2021, so this is really good to see,” says Mishka Balsom, president of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce.

According to Statistics Canada’s labour force survey for January, the employment rate of core-aged women (25 to 54 years old) in Canada was 81.1 per cent, while the employment rate of core-aged men was 87.2 per cent.

In both March 2020 and January 2021, the monthly decline in employment among core-aged women was more than twice what it was for core-aged men.

“It was absolutely alarming,” Balsom says of the job losses among women at the time.

In 2020, her organization highlighted a report from the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, titled “The She-Covery Project,” which described five ways the gender-related recovery gap can be remedied.

Balsom cites one strategy, flexible work arrangements, as particularly successful: the work-from-home setups that developed in 2020 have meant more remote or hybrid job opportunities today — a bonus for women with young children.

A study from 2023 by Abacus Data found that 65 per cent of Canadian women wanted to work from home, compared to 52 per cent of Canadian men.

And the spike in working from home and hybrid alternatives after COVID has helped to close the gender gap, Balsom says.

Ventresca commutes to the Shaw Festival’s office in Old Town three times a week, a 45-minute drive from her home in Fonthill. She works from home the other two days.

“One good thing that’s come out of COVID is we’re able to be a little bit more flexible with our work schedules,” she says.

However, accessing child care, Balsom says, still stands in the way of closing the workforce gap between men and women.

While the provincial and federal governments are trying to make child care more affordable, with its $10-a-day agreement in March 2022, Balsom says the main problem is child care centres need more staff so they can accept more kids.

“They need to raise the wages for those educators to entice more people, to attract more people, to retain them in that field,” she says.

Another trend is the downward trajectory of the work participation rate of young women: in January, it was at its lowest level since May 2000, falling 4.2 percentage points from last February among both students and non-students.

Kristen Nilsen is vice-chair of NEXTNiagara, the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce’s advisory council for young professionals.

One key issue young women face in the workplace, she says, is having more trouble moving up in the organizations they work for.

“There are simply barriers for women that prevent them from getting the same opportunities,” she says.

As organizations face rising costs, priorities such as equity, diversity and inclusion awareness and addressing the gender pay gap may be “pushed to the backburner.”

“It’s basically about continuing to have those conversations and make sure that women’s issues, EDI, all of this remains at the forefront,” she says.

Ventresca feels lucky that a lot of women hold high-ranking positions where she works, including on the board of directors and board of governors.

“It’s hard to be taken seriously and respected the way men are respected,” she says. “It’s going to take years to be on an equal playing field.”

For this year’s International Women’s Day, Balsom says the Chamber is focusing on women’s mental health in the workplace.

The organization is zeroing in on how pay inequity, caregiving responsibilities, harassment and underrepresentation in the workplace compound to affect a female employee’s well-being.

“The stress factors on women are high and often they haven’t made it to the forefront,” she says. “They’re often being doubted in a quieter way.”

Ventresca says she has her share of mental health struggles and taking care of herself is a priority.

At her job, she appreciates that there’s an open mental health and wellness policy, a 35-hour work week and an emphasis on work-life balance.

“It’s been nice to work for a company that sees me as a human outside of just being a worker,” she says.

Overall, the demands women face are still high, Balsom says: their responsibilities — both personal and family-related — are what’s keeping some of them out of the workforce.

“I think a lot of people are pleased to see the flexibility, but we still have a long way to go.”


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