International Women’s Day, Pandemic Edition: The Need for a Collective Feminist Struggle

This International Women’s Day the United Nations celebrated under the theme of “Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a Covid-19 World.” The Canadian government followed suit by promoting the hashtag #FeministRecovery on March 8, 2021 in recognition of the uneven impacts the covid-19 pandemic has had on women. Specifically, the current pandemic has seen women exit the labour market in large numbers. Without women in the labour force, there is less chance that women will advance to leadership roles as there will be gaps in their resumes and skill depreciation over time. The issues that are preventing women from re-entering the labour force and progressing in their careers  and achieving leadership roles urgently need to be addressed. 

To ensure the #FeministRecovery is beneficial for all women, not simply women with relative privilege prior to the pandemic, it is necessary to examine the content of potential feminist recovery plans through a critical lens of need interpretation. For instance, focusing simply on the needs of women who have exited the labour market completely truncates what is a much larger problem. This focus ignores the women who continue to work but have had their hours reduced. This category of women encompasses many women who are low-paid, precarious, and racialized workers who are performing care work in places such as long-term care homes. Recent news stories have shed light on this issue by reporting how a covid outbreak in a homeless shelter in Ottawa stemmed from long-term care workers, having had their hours reduced by having to work at only one location instead of several, could no longer afford their rent and had to turn to a homeless shelter. To ensure the #FeministRecovery meets the needs of all women, then, there is an urgent need for a collective feminist struggle to define the needs of women in a post-covid-19 world broadly. 

Covid-19’s Gendered Impacts: Why we need a #FeministRecovery

The 2008 recession relating to the global financial crisis was termed a ‘he-cession.’ Between October 2008 and July 2009, 71% of the roughly 370,000 Canadians who lost their jobs were men. Additionally this recession saw a large number of working age men forced to work part-time hours when they would have preferred to work full-time hours. This of course is not to say that women’s employment was not impacted. Rather, this is to say that it was not primarily women’s employment being impacted by the unfolding recession. 

The case of the covid-19 recession is the opposite of the 2008 recession. Instead of a ‘he-cession’, the current recession is being termed a ‘she-cession’. Women have disproportionately been the ones who have had to either exit from the labour force or reduce their hours from full-time to part-time. In April 2020 women’s participation in the Canadian labour market dropped to 55%—the lowest rate since the 1980s. In November 2020 further troubling reports detailed how women continued to exit the labour market as men began to re-enter in large numbers. However, the causes of the job exiting comparatively speaking are quite different between the two recessions. 

Over half of the jobs lost in the 2008 recession were manufacturing jobs. These jobs had already been declining in Canada. Spanning backwards to before the recession began, manufacturing jobs had decreased by 555,900 between 2004 and 2009. To put this into perspective, manufacturing jobs, during the recession, between October 2008 and October 2009 decreased by 218,000. Meaning, the recession simply accelerated the decline that had already been set in place. To return working age men to the labour force, the solution was an increase in retraining opportunities and in construction jobs.

The industries most impacted by the covid-19 recession—transportation, restaurants, accommodation, and arts and entertainment, alongside retail—were not in significant decline prior to the pandemic. Relatedly, these industries were increasing women’s labour force participation rates prior to the pandemic. Thus, one solution to recovering women’s employment losses is to dramatically decrease the spread of the covid-19 virus and allow these industries to recover.

This solution on its own is insufficient, though. RBC Economics, for instance, recognizes that women are not only more likely to work in the industries most impacted by covid-19 lockdown measures, but the covid-19 pandemic has also increased the amount of unpaid caring work women are expected to perform within the home given reduced capacity within childcare centres. Meaning, there is a need to address the key issue of childcare.

But still, this limited focus on getting women back into the labour force ignores key issues that women experienced in the labour force before they exited due to covid-19 and that women who have stayed in the labour force continue to experience in an intensified way. Precarity, low-wages, and lack of benefits are key issues that should not be ignored when designing a #FeministRecovery that will benefit all Canadian women—including the women like those working on the frontlines in long-term care homes that are not making enough money to afford basic necessities such as housing. 

What are feminist recovery plans proposing?

YWCA Canada has been focused on advocating for a feminist recovery in Canada since the very early stages of the pandemic. The all-encompassing solutions that YWCA Canada has put forward, first alongside Gender and the Economy and then alongside Feminist Alliance for International Action Canada, will be explored here to show how women have broader needs than simply returning to the labour force in a manner similar to before the pandemic. 

In the report published by YWCA Canada and Gender and the Economy, there is a strong emphasis on understanding how gender is not the only factor impacting women’s relationship to the labour force. The report additionally argues that there is a need to address the root causes of systemic racism in Canada that relate to both colonization and the transatlantic slave trade. Robyn Maynard has shown that prior to the pandemic racialized populations in Canada faced discrimination in the labour force (despite anti-discrimination policies) and were streamlined into low-paying jobs. In the context of the pandemic, because White women have experience with higher paying and more respected jobs (while also having greater access to childcare), White women have been able to re-enter the labour force quicker than racialized women. In November 2020 the unemployment rate for white women was 6.2% compared to  10.5% for minority women. 

Relatedly, the report recommends improving the quality of jobs by legislating 14 days of paid sick and paid family leave for all workers, paying for retraining for all impacted workers through the Employment Insurance system, expanding the eligibility for Employment Insurance, and legislating job protection for individuals with disabilities. This list of recommendations could have gone further to include increased wages, which the report later does in relation to childcare workers in a recommended national childcare strategy. 

Furthermore this section should have advanced a right to a guaranteed basic income. Providing a baseline that no one could fall below this innovation would be especially beneficial for racialized women who on average have the lowest incomes in Canada. This measure would provide a safety net for when either wages or amount of hours are insufficient. If this measure had been in place during the pandemic, long-term care workers who had their hours reduced would not have fallen into homelessness given how the basic income would have supplemented their reduced incomes.

This types of rights talk is characteristic of the second report authored by the Feminist Alliance for International Action Canada and YWCA Canada. This report argues that Canada needs to work towards meeting international guidelines on the rights to an adequate standard of living, adequate housing, and social security. These are important feminist issues given that marginalized women are disproportionately impacted by low-incomes that relegate them to substandard conditions, including lack of safe drinking water and appropriate housing.

Altogether, then, these two reports on how Canada can work towards a post-covid-19 feminist recovery are well rounded in their solutions. The reports recognize that intersectionality is key to making sure that solutions are effective for all women. The implementation of these measures would significantly improve even the pre-covid-19 conditions for marginalized women. Greater labour protections, childcare, and rights to essentials such as adequate housing and social security would mean that not only would White and higher income women be able to re-enter the labour force post-covid-19, but also it would mean that racialized and immigrant women would be on closer to equal footing with White and higher earning women.

#FeministRecovery and The Politics of Needs Interpretation 

Despite the federal government’s commitment to a #FeministRecovery for Canada, it is unlikely that the more substantial feminist recovery solutions proposed by feminist organizations, such as YWCA Canada, will be implemented. The reality of this situation can be explained by Nancy Fraser’s conception of “needs interpretation.” Fraser argues that in late-capitalist welfare states, such as the United States and Canada, discourse around needs is highly political. It is generally agreed that the state has a role in meeting the needs of citizens. However, for needs to be met by the state they first must become politicized. This process of politicization involves competing discourses. 

Feminist organizations, such as YWCA Canada, for instance, have different understandings and discourses on needs compared to those on the political right and those with stricter business/fiscal concerns. As was shown earlier, the concerns of RBC Economics are narrower than the concerns of feminist organizations in Canada. Whereas YWCA Canada and other feminist organizations are attempting to politicize factors such as racialized labor market segregation and wages too low to maintain adequate living and housing conditions, competing voices are attempting to keep the politicization simply at the childcare level. 

What this represents is a difference of thick versus thin interpretations of needs. Thin interpretations of needs simply look at how “A needs X to do Y.” In this case, women need childcare in order to re-enter the labour force. A thick interpretation of needs looks at how A needs P in-order-to X and A needs Q in-order-to P. Again, in this case, women need adequate incomes to access childcare and in-order-to access higher incomes, racialized women need to not be held back by discrimination in the labour force. It is easier, politically, to recognize and act on thin interpretations of needs rather than thick interpretations of needs. This is because the thin interpretation is closest to the status quo. Prior to the politicization of women’s needs, these needs are largely individualized. Meaning, the needs of women are interpreted as private matters to be dealt with within individual homes with individual solutions (i.e., to work harder to earn more money to cover the costs of these depoliticized needs). 

For thick interpretations that recognize that not all individuals have an equal chance to establish security through private means to surpass thin interpretations in the competitive arena, it is necessary for advocates to “wage a political struggle” against the status quo. For even though there are commitments by political and business interests in pursuing a #FeministRecovery, there is a false neutrality in their favoured solutions to the current she-cession. Their plans, in comparison to the plans of YWCA Canada and other feminist organizations, have a tendency to view the problem simply as women not being in the labour force when in reality part of the reason women are not in the labour force is because their pre-pandemic jobs were of low quality.

Conclusion: We Can Do Better, Together

What is needed, then, is an intersectional, collective feminist movement to push for the thick interpretation of women’s needs in a post-covid-19 world. The plans set out by feminist organizations, if taken seriously by political actors, can significantly improve the labour market for all women. Women, from various classes, races, ethnicities, etc., if brought together can shift the interpretation of what a #FeministRecovery needs to address. The issue has already made it to the political, the work now is simply to push for the politicization of issues that go beyond simply returning to work as usual. A refusal to return to work as usual, in the form of a women’s strike, could force the hand of the government to recognize the thick needs of women in this moment rather than just the thin needs.



The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine
Lori Oliver
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Lori Oliver is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University and a SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Doctoral Scholar. Her research interests include gendered welfare state politics, poverty, housing/homelessness policies, and intersectional inequalities. Lori previously worked on community-based research projects with ACORN Canada, Adsum for Women & Children, and the IWK Health Centre. Her current PhD research is critically assessing gaps in social safety nets and homelessness initiatives that contribute to increasing levels of family homelessness.

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