How Canada Can Do Better for Working Mothers and Caregivers
This Mother’s Day, working mothers and caregivers continue to face significant challenges to their economic participation and security. These challenges are deeply gendered and by no means uncommon experiences.
“More than half of women in Canada are tasked with providing care to children and other adults.”
Statistics Canada data reveals that more than half of women in Canada are tasked with providing care to children and other adults. In our homes, women provide the majority of unpaid care. A heavier unpaid household workload including child, adult, and elder care, chores, and shopping holds true across all age groups.
This heavier unpaid workload also applies to how things happen in our communities too, within the communal assets many of us rely on on a weekly basis, like local hospitals, faith meeting places, and sports and recreation spaces. Women are more likely than men to participate in formal volunteering, especially those in the Millennial and Baby Boomer generations.
The Problems: Unequal Treatment, Lost Wages and More
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the public and media praised essential workers such as healthcare providers and public health practitioners. But we seem prone to forgetfulness about the necessity of everyday, behind-the-scenes unpaid care work. This is part of the ecosystem of essential work, too. Nobody survives without some level of care from someone else.
That someone else is often a woman or a mother.
And many of them do their caregiving work in addition to handling paid work responsibilities.
“Women and mothers are carrying Canada’s care economy.”
In fact, women and mothers are carrying Canada’s care economy, which Statistics Canada defines as the sector that provides “paid and unpaid care work to children under the age of 15 and adults with long-term conditions and disabilities.”
We speak of the care economy as a slice of the overall economy, but we should not presume it to be an insignificant slice. In 2015, unpaid household work represented $778.2 billion in value, based on a gross opportunity cost calculation.
It’s no wonder, then, that women are more likely than men to report negative impacts from their caregiving, such as feeling tired, worried, or anxious. They’re stressed out by the weight they carry. In so many senses, lives depend on their care work and they are fully aware of it.
One respondent to a Canadian Women’s Foundation survey of working mothers and caregivers said it in a way that has reverberated in my mind. “I am at my limit,” she told us. “There is too much expected of people with dependents. You are burning out an entire generation of people.”
“Working mothers of children aged five and under have been tasked with taking the most time off for family responsibility leave.”
Another told us: “I desperately need help at home to survive each day and to take care of a child with medical needs and an elderly parent with cancer and other chronic health conditions, both of whom need high levels of attention.”
In the workforce context, mothers and family caregivers certainly feel doubly and triply pressed. Statistics show that working mothers of children aged five and under have been tasked with taking the most time off for family responsibility leave. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, their lost paid workdays shot up from 4.7 days in 2019 to 9.2 days in 2020.
This higher level of leave has not eased down to pre-pandemic levels.
Lost workdays can, of course, result in lost wages. It also leads to lost opportunities to do things like take on important project roles, participate in mentorship and professional development training, and meet with your colleagues.
These are not inconsequential misses. They add up to good performance reviews, promotions and raises, and being viewed by your boss as a valuable member of the team.
The Solution: Working Mothers Need Well-Rounded, Fair Policies
I imagine worries about balancing it all take its toll on a mass level, too. We hear politicians and commentators raising alarms about declining birth rates and delayed parenting in Canada. Perhaps the valid concerns women and gender-diverse people have about becoming parents factors into their calculations in raising families. Perhaps it’s making these life-changing decisions even more difficult for them to figure out.
The Role of Policy
In assorted discussions about gendered choices, opportunities, and needs, I don’t hear enough productive and evidence-based solutions on what it takes to support diverse mothers and caregivers as they struggle with disproportionate loads, barriers, and unpaid and underpaid work. We rarely envision and acknowledge their contributions to our care economy as a sector that enables all other sectors and the businesses and organizations that form them to function.
In this way, beyond supporting the undersupported, there’s also a sense that Canada will miss out on the economic opportunities we’d gain if we bolstered our care economy and the people who constitute the majority of it.
To seize the moment, governmental policy changes would aim to make life better for mothers and caregivers. This includes investing in our national childcare to ensure the most vulnerable mothers and families can benefit from it and doing all we can to fix the fractured care system we’ve had in place for too long. It also means ensuring an excellent standard for childcare workers – excellent compensation and protection for their work.
“In addition to policies that will end all gender pay gaps, we need policy solutions that eliminate motherhood penalties.”
Policy improvements also have to apply to labour laws and standards. It should not be so difficult to access paid sick days and family responsibility leave. In addition to policies that will end all gender pay gaps, we need policy solutions that eliminate motherhood penalties.
There’s no question that the gender pay gap yawns open all the more at the birth of a first child. In 2015, working mothers with at least one child under age 18 earned 85 cents for every $1 earned by fathers, while women without children earned 90 cents for every dollar earned by men without children. The motherhood earnings gap persists for at least five years after women return to work following the birth of a child.
Some people blame women for gender pay gaps they suffer, making a flat argument that it is the result of their unstrategic choices. The reality of the fatherhood bonus demonstrates that gender compensation gaps like the motherhood earnings gap are in fact rooted in workplace practices. Men simply do not face the same penalties after becoming fathers. They actually tend to experience an increase in earnings.
The Role of Workplaces
Beyond legislation, workplaces must play their transformative role. They don’t need to wait for the driver of external requirements to do better. They can get visionary on their own steam as they aim to build their capacities and excellence.
“Workplaces need to think about employee advancement models that make pains not to punish mothers or over-bolster fathers.”
There has been a rise in several forms of flexible workplace models, such as hybrid work opportunities. Many of them are welcome developments for workers trying to balance caregiving responsibilities. In addition, workplaces need to think about employee advancement models that make pains not to punish mothers or over-bolster fathers, but instead offer their talent robust paths to leadership, especially women and other equity-seeking workers. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also a helpful way to increase gender diversity in leadership, including in boards and the C-suite.
In simple terms, workplaces themselves need to factor in the care economy in their drive to be employers of choice for everyone, including diverse mothers and caregivers. Failing to do so means a hit to their bottom lines.
As we celebrate our mothers and caregivers this Mother’s Day, it’s about time we listen to their needs, recognize the unique gendered challenges they face in our economy, and be ambitious about lightening their load.