As the Canadian economy reopens, mothers are much less likely to be back at work than fathers—a gender gap that has been widening since the COVID-19 pandemic began, new UBC research has found.
The change has been particularly striking among less educated parents. For parents with high school education or less, whose children are elementary-school age, women’s employment trailed men by 1.6 percentage points in February. By May, that gap had multiplied more than 10 times to 16.8 percentage points.
Overall, for parents of all education levels, the gap has gone from 0.8 to 7.3 percentage points for parents of school-age children, and from 1.0 to 2.5 percentage points for parents of preschoolers.
“By this point it’s become clear that the pandemic is not the ‘great equalizer,'” said sociology professor Sylvia Fuller, who conducted the study along with UBC colleague Yue Qian. “Yes, we’re all living with the threat of sickness and with fallout in terms of change to our daily lives, but just as some people have proved to be more vulnerable to getting really sick, some groups are more vulnerable economically and socially as a result of the pandemic. What we’re seeing here is mothers rather than fathers having their employment really dramatically impacted.”
Restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 have caused disruption to work and school routines in Canada and around the world. Economic uncertainty prompted many employers to lay off staff. Even if parents weren’t forced out of work, they still needed child-care solutions for the days when schools were closed.
Much of that responsibility has fallen to mothers, for a number of reasons. A pre-existing gender pay gap has created an incentive in many families for fathers to remain in the workforce. Mothers are also more likely to work part-time jobs that are first to be cut during economic crises. And in families with less education, mothers often work in retail and hospitality jobs that were hit hard by lockdowns.
The UBC researchers analyzed data from Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey to determine how the gender employment gap changed from February to May. This data is collected every month and provides the most current snapshot of Canada’s labour market. The study included only people who were employed at the beginning of the pandemic, or who had been employed in the previous year. The sample amounted to approximately 110,000 people.
The researchers noted the month the data was collected, the respondents’ gender, level of education, and the age of the youngest child they had.
Among their findings:
- The gender gap increased more among parents of school-age children than it did among parents of preschoolers.
- The widening of the gender gap was much more pronounced among less educated parents.
- The gender gap among less educated parents continued to widen in May as the economy began to re-open.
- Among university-educated parents, a gender gap appeared in the early days of the pandemic but was short-lived and had closed by April.
The data points to the importance of a robust and well-funded public child care sector, Fuller said, and other policy measures that will help less educated mothers return to the labour market.
“If this persists as the economy opens up, if parents are still facing a summer with limited child care available, summer camps being closed, and uncertainty with schooling in the fall, then there’s a real danger that the pandemic will open up fault lines in men’s and women’s employment that will increase inequalities for a long time to come,” said Fuller.
The study was published this week by Canadian Public Policy.