Understanding the Impacts of a Pandemic on Gender Equity in Canada

by | Jun 8, 2020

An article from our Student Contribution series by Lamia Aganagic, Public Policy Graduate from the University of Toronto and the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. Student Contributions are written in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the opinion of The Futures Project.

Envisioning a future, post pandemic, is an exercise that policy makers, scholars and innovators around the world have been tasked with. The Futures Project aim to enable and implement strategies that bring together values-based visions for the future. However, a future without COVID-19 cannot be realized without the contribution of women and marginalized populations. If we are to action the UN Agenda for 2030 – operating within the timeline of a pandemic – we must acknowledge the impact it has had and will have on gender equality for generations to come.

With an eerie grace, COVID-19 has exposed the flaws of global economic and social institutions. As markets brace for impact and unemployment rates skyrocket, horrific headlines tout the growing number of new cases and deaths to the soundtrack of national leaders presenting hastily prepared policy frameworks. With no clear idea of the future, millions are sheltered in place to contain the spread in order to protect their fragile health care systems as the financial and emotional strain takes its toll.

As with any crisis – humanitarian, natural, political or otherwise – there are distinct gendered experiences and outcomes. In the case of COVID-19, these experiences will outweigh matters of physiology and infection rates as their influence existed prior to the pandemic and will persist long after quarantine orders are lifted. In the global context, issues of gender inequality have played a prominent role in policy frameworks pertaining to sustainable development and economic diversification. What differentiates COVID-19 from a humanitarian crisis or a natural disaster is that the global community faces a common enemy; the virus does not discriminate by age, gender or ethnicity. It is clear, however, that due to the existence of institutional inequities, the pandemic will disproportionately disadvantage women. Using the Canadian context as a case study, experts have predicted that anywhere between 35-70% of Canadians could become infected with the virus, with 55% of confirmed positive cases so far being female. The impact of COVID-19 will be felt locally and globally but the repercussions for our changing world will be faced by women working on the frontlines and within their homes.


Canadians across the country are being asked by government officials to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but how can one shelter in place if home is not the safest place to be? With the implementation of stringent “stay-at-home” public health policies on a national level, those living in precarious housing or unsafe domestic conditions are facing an additional challenge. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner every six days. With the pandemic-related challenges facing social services and the shelter system, women fleeing domestic violence are encountering a threat to their safety on either side of the threshold to their home. It has been reported that the Assaulted Women’s Helpline, which serves as a 24/7 crisis counselling service in Toronto, is processing nearly four times as many calls while domestic incidents reported in the Greater Toronto Area to police have increased by approximately 18 percent. Given the pleas from advocates and frontline workers, the Canadian government has committed $50 million to address the needs of women and children fleeing violence. Within this funding allocation, $10 million was provided to Indigenous Services Canada‘s existing network of 46 emergency shelters on reserve and in the Yukon to support Indigenous communities while the remaining $40 million went to Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE) which has allocated $30 million to address the immediate needs of shelters and sexual assault centres. In the short term, provincial governments have committed to making hotel rooms available to victims of abuse; however, as the pandemic progresses and resources for these organizations become scarce, many experts have shared their concern for the future that these services will face without the appropriate support as the virus tests the responsiveness of their programming.


In Canada, COVID-19 has created a chasm in the economy regarding employment outcomes for women. Women have experienced the majority of job losses during the pandemic as Statistics Canada has reported that women of all ages accounted for 63% of total job losses in March as industries with predominately female workforces were forced to quell the outbreak. As COVID-19 causes cafes, restaurants, bars and retail businesses to shutter their doors, the employment that thousands have relied upon to support themselves and their families has fallen through. Due to the precarious nature of this type of labour, many of these positions do not come with the benefits, wages and protection that individuals need to weather a pandemic. Furthermore, this type of employment instability and financial insecurity is particularly notable amongst racialized women, women with children and members of the LGTBQI+ community. However, the nuances of this gendered experience are most prevalent in hospitals and long-term care facilities across the country as women fortify the frontlines in the fight against COVID-19. Nearly 92% of Canada’s nurses are femaleand upwards of 90% of personal support workers in long term care homes are women. As COVID-19 patients overcrowd ICUs and persistent shortages of personal protective equipment plague hospitals, many nurses and facility workers face the fear of contracting COVID-19 while caring for their patients. With the growing threat of exposure, the loss of work and its benefits would greatly impact the loved ones they care for within their own homes; the pandemic has exposed the importance and inequities regarding the paid and unpaid labour that women engage in to structure our society.


Furthermore, with the closure of schools, parents are facing increasing pressure to serve as more than caregivers for their children. From balancing the needs of the household to assisting in delivering curricular materials, the home has become a workplace, a school and a shelter for many families; gendered roles of domesticity have become further blurred during the pandemic. Additionally, the closure of childcare facilities has magnified the intersection of two issues that female frontline workers face as they continue to risk their lives at their respective workplaces. Without the necessary care for the safety of their children and without the option of unconventional childcare agreements with family and friends, many frontline workers are left with limited options. One noteworthy policy response from the Ontario provincial government has included offering emergency childcare for frontline workers to ensure that families are “safe, cared for, and healthy” in these unprecedented times. While many families are grateful for the measures that are being taken, one cannot help but ask will this type of policy response remain in place once the threat of contracting COVID-19 is no longer imminent?

Through the lens of the labour market and the home, the economic and social outcomes of the pandemic on women serves as case study for understanding the influence of institutions and societal norms on gender equity. In the Western world, as demonstrated by the Canadian case, employment insurance applications have broken records previously set by economic recessions and food banks continue to see an increase in demand; policymakers are facing a variety of challenges regarding the management and mitigation of the spread of the virus in local communities and around the world. However, the true impact of the virus on gender equity will most likely not be seen until years after the economy and our societies have restructured from its effect. Ultimately, the inequities that women face in the workforce and the home were present prior to the pandemic and will require a nuanced policy response for the world we inhabit post-pathogen.