Different, but equal: the challenges of the pandemic for Brazilian and Canadian women

COVID-19 highlighted that there are still many obstacles to gender equality in the labor market, but there also is accelerated progress

By Estela Cangerana

The fight for gender equality has taken on new contours during the past year. Social isolation, which is one of the results of the pandemic, has openly shown that even women that are top executives, or women from countries that are examples in gender equity, are still much more affected than their male peers, and carry greater burdens. Both in Canada and in Brazil, the impacts of this reality are forcing the job market to seek more inclusive models. However, there may be a positive aspect to this issue: the acceleration of a process of metamorphosis, both in the corporate world and in the internal demands of professional women themselves.

“Women have been forced to transform themselves and transform their expectations. The psychological impact of all that has been happening is huge. We will all come out changed and, in this context, companies have an important role in offering support and understanding the environment that is being formed”, says lawyer Esther Nunes, former president of CCBC and co-coordinator of Comissão de Diversidade da Câmara (Chamber’s Diversity Committee).

In her opinion, “more than hiring the less representative groups, the challenge is to really include these groups in the corporate environment”. Nunes explains that it is necessary to understand the needs and welcome them, which requires a behavioral and cultural change process from the leaders. “Many companies have difficulties in creating and implementing their welcoming programs, but this is a path with no return”, she points out.

Statistics show an exodus of women from the labor market last year. Not only because of dismissals on the initiative of the companies, but also by the choice of the female workers themselves, or by the decision from dismissed female workers not to look for a new job. This situation, and the economic and social consequences of it, leads us to some reflections.

In Canada, a country recognized worldwide for embracing diversity and inclusion, studies by the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) show that, in a matter of a few months, the labor market has seen the largest drop in female participation in comparison to the previous 30 years, if we compare it with data from the last 30 years. In 2019, the year before the crisis, 61.4% of women over the age of 15 were part of the Canadian labor force. At the beginning of the pandemic, as recently as February 2020, this percentage had already dropped to 55.5%, hinting at a scenario that worsened in the following months.

“Women continued leaving the labor force even as men returned to it,” the bank stresses in a report. Between February and October, 20,600 women left the Canadian job market, while 68,000 men entered it. Among the age groups most affected are 20 to 24 years old, and 35 to 39 years old.

In Brazil, the setback was also three decades. According to Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (Ipea) (Institute of Applied Economic Research), the participation of women in the Brazilian labor force, in the third quarter of 2020, was 45.8%, the lowest rate since 1990. The drop in the number of female professionals on the market was greater than that recorded by men, in the pandemic. The biggest victims: mothers with children up to ten years old. The rate of those who were employed, or looking for work, plummeted from 58%, in the third quarter of 2019, to about 50% in 2020.

Without any class distinction

Esther Nunes emphasizes the fact that all women, regardless of function, education, or social status are suffering the impacts of the current scenario and need to review concepts. Obviously, the less favored classes have borne most of the burden, due to their falling incomes, in addition to all the other problems. Women executives have not felt the decrease in salary as much, in the cases it has occurred, but they have had to face other challenges, which often they had never imagined they would have to deal with”, she says.

“In order to be able to devote to their careers, before the pandemic, these female professionals had large and structured support networks that helped in some parts of their lives without them having to be directly involved, such as their babysitters, maids, schools. Suddenly, they found themselves with none of this assistance”, she adds. The pressure and the feeling of not being able to handle everything generated great frustrations, anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders.

The study Women in the Workplace 2020, by consultancy McKinsey & Company, which is in its sixth edition, portrays this reality clearly. The document highlights the importance of understanding the intersection of Covid-19’s impacts on women’s experiences, the movement of mothers out of the labor market, and the risk of companies losing women in leadership positions.

“Between 2015 and 2020, we see slow but steady progress in women’s representation. (…) Now the COVID-19 crisis threatens to extinguish the gains of the last six years,” says the survey, which detected 2 million women leaving the US market at the same time. It was the first time that the labor market had more women than men leaving their jobs.

Many of those who left their jobs were mothers. According to the survey, one in three mothers were tempted to step back or abandon their career in 2020. Women executives, on the other hand, have never been under this much pressure at work and at home. The consulting firm reminds us that, generally, women aim to perform at a higher level than their male counterparts and usually blame themselves more for failures. In the current scenario, with even heavier challenges, they face greater criticism and unfair judgments.

For McKinsey, companies cannot afford to lose these professionals, at the risk of having significant financial impacts. To get out of this dilemma, the companies will need to make the corporate environment more sustainable, with more flexible rules, review performance indicators and measures to minimize gender bias. It will also be necessary to strengthen communication, supporting and welcoming female professionals.