To rebuild after COVID-19, we need a feminist recovery plan, says YWCA Hamilton CEO Denise Christopherson

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The following is an editorial by YWCA Hamilton CEO Denise Christopherson was published in the Hamilton Spectator on Aug 1.

It’s been almost exactly five months since the first case of Covid-19 emerged in Hamilton, and we’re only beginning to understand how the pandemic will reshape our society.

What we do know, however, is that the virus is having a disproportionate effect on women.

Across Canada, more women have died than men – in part because women have been pushed to the frontlines of the pandemic response. In Canada, fifty-six per cent of women workers are concentrated in occupations known as the 5Cs: caring, cashiering, catering, cleaning and clerical functions. As a result, more women than men have had to risk their health and safety in order to continue working.

This is borne out locally when we look at the professions of those diagnosed with Covid-19 in Hamilton: of the 57 Personal Support Workers who contracted the virus locally, 51 were women. Of 10 housecleaners, 9 were women. Of the 48 nurses diagnosed with the virus, 41 are women.

The Covid-19 pandemic is also jeopardizing the hard-fought gains women have made in the workplace. In March 2020, women represented 70 per cent of all job losses in Canada in the core working-age demographic (25 to 54 years). One in five women workers lost their job, or the majority of their working hours, in February and March.

A sobering economic report released by RBC on July 16 shows that women’s participation in the workforce has dropped to only 55 per cent, the lowest it’s been since the 1980s.

What does this mean for Hamilton as we begin to look past the pandemic?

On Tuesday, YWCA Canada, in partnership with the University of Toronto’s Institute for Gender and the Economy, released a report outlining concrete steps to help women, Two-Spirit, and gender-diverse people recover from the pandemic. Called a “Feminist Recovery Plan for Canada,” the milestone study crystallizes the need to recognize that women have been hit harder by Covid-19, and will need specific types of support to recover.

Recommendations in the report include investing in early learning and child care; instituting paid sick days for all workers; establishing a national action plan that addresses violence against Indigenous Women, Girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people; and building more affordable housing.

Measures like these will benefit all Canadians, but are specifically aimed at tackling systemic barriers and improving economic security for women. If decision-makers fail to specifically consider the needs of women, we will be left behind.

Hamilton city council has already taken the important step of instituting a gender and equity lens to its decision-making. As the city begins to rebuild, it’s crucial that mayor Fred Eisenberger and his council colleagues apply this viewpoint to any local recovery efforts.

We know how much women can offer in the workplace. In fact, countries with women leaders have been particularly successful at handling the virus – including New Zealand, Germany, Finland and Taiwan.

If women are forced out of the workplace due to Covid-19, we will lose the opportunity to raise up the next generation of women leaders – all but ensuring that women’s voices are shut out of Hamilton’s upper-level decision-making.

Economist Armine Yalnizyan said it best: “There will be no economic recovery without a she-covery.” We need to ensure that women not only survive the pandemic, but continue to thrive.

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