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March 2022

Women in Recovery: COVID-19 and Women’s Labour Market Participation

Two years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we explore how women in Canada are recovering in a tumultuous labour market.

Illustration by Dorothy Leung for LMIC.

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Key Findings

Two years after the start of the pandemic, jobs recovery for women in Canada has been rapid and is now slightly ahead of men’s recovery. As of February 2022, women’s employment is up by 2.0% (+178,000 jobs) compared to February 2020, while men’s employment is up 1.9% (+192,000 jobs) over the same period.

Women’s employment recovery has been strongest among women aged 25–54 (“core-aged”). By February 2022, the share of core-aged women with a job reached the highest level ever recorded (81%), primarily driven by gains in full-time employment.

The employment gains for core-aged women are concentrated in middle- and high-earning occupations, which have increased by more than 4% since 2020’s lows. Employment for women is up slightly in lower paying occupations, 0.5% above pre-pandemic levels.

Across all age groups, part-time employment for women is up 1.6% (+37,000 jobs) compared to two years ago. The recovery of part-time employment continues to be strongest for men 25 years old and over.

Full-time employment for younger (15–24 years) and older (55+ years) women and men has yet to fully recover, remaining below pre-COVID levels.

The initial declines in the labour force participation rate among mothers has now been fully reversed. Core-aged women with children are now participating in the labour force at or above pre-pandemic levels.

Introduction

One year ago – a full year into the global COVID-19 pandemic – we explored how, as a result of COVID-19, more women had lost jobs than men.

Now, two years after the start of the pandemic, we’re revisiting the topic. How has the labour market changed for women in Canada? We explore how women have fared by employment type, age, sector, and income group.

Labour markets have recovered rapidly over the past year, with overall employment returning to pre-pandemic levels — and, as of September 2021, exceeding pre-pandemic levels. The latest figures for February 2022 put employment 1.9% (+369,000 jobs) above February 2020.

Employment recovery for women has also been strong, up 2.0% (+178,000 jobs) as of February 2022 — slightly higher than men’s employment increase, which is up 1.9% or 192,000 jobs.

Recovery for women has been strongest among the core-aged population (aged 25–54) who are now reporting the highest-ever labour force participation and employment rates. However, we have seen uneven recovery across a number of other dimensions, which we investigate further below.

Exploring unrealized employment growth: What if there had been no pandemic?

Employment rates for both men and women during the pandemic were at their lowest in April 2020, and recovery over the subsequent two years has been rapid but unsteady.

Initial pandemic-related employment losses were steep for both sexes, totalling 1.52 million (-16.8%) for women and 1.46 million (-14.6%) for men in just two months between February and April 2020.

Employment has recovered rapidly since then, despite later waves of COVID-19 requiring renewed public health measures that led to shorter-lived, less severe employment declines (see Figure 1).

As of February 2022, employment is up by 369,000 jobs compared to February 2020. This boost is comprised of 192,000 (+1.9%) net gains in employment for men and 178,000 (+2.0%) net gains for women.

Although employment has returned to and now surpasses its February 2020 level, Canada’s labour markets remain well below where we might have been if COVID-19 had not occurred.

To illustrate this, Figure 1 includes dashed lines showing what employment trends might have been had a global pandemic not caused business restrictions and halted the inflow of the working-age immigrants Canada’s labour force relies on for growth.

If male and female employment had continued along the average trajectory from 2005 up to February 2020, total employment would have been almost 1% higher than its current level.

Compared against this hypothetical scenario, female employment is currently 0.9% lower than it might have been if we had not had a global pandemic. Male employment is currently 0.5% lower.

One takeaway from this analysis is that when we use February 2020 employment levels as a benchmark for comparison, recovery appears significant. When viewed alongside unrealized projected growth in employment, recovery is slightly weaker; even against this metric the recovery in total employment is near complete.

However, Canada has experienced slow population growth over the past two years. This is an important additional dimension to consider when evaluating how the pandemic has impacted Canada’s labour market.

Figure 1: Employment has recovered but is below its pre-COVID projected level

Actual and projected employment for men and women, from 2005 to 2022

LMIC; Statistics Canada table 14-10-0287. Employment data is seasonally adjusted.

Employment rate for women aged 25-54 above 80% for the first time ever

Over the past two years, the Canadian population has continued to grow – although at a slower rate than average due, in part, to immigration being stalled for much of 2020 and 2021.

Despite these immigration restrictions, the population aged 15 years and older increased by 2.1% between February 2020 and February 2022, according to the Labour Force Survey — +0.2 percentage points faster than the growth in employment (1.9%).

Given the similar net growth in population and employment over the past two years, Canada’s employment rate — the share of those aged 15 and over who are working — is now at 61.8%, essentially the same as the pre-pandemic employment rate (61.9%).

This is a key labour market metric that reflects strong overall jobs recovery.

Focusing on the core-aged group, the total population of this age group increased by only 1.3% over the past two years — slower than the overall population increase of 2.1%. The effect of Canada’s ageing population is evident from this slower growth. A larger number of older workers aged out of the core-aged demographic and were not replaced by newcomers to Canada, who are typically core-age workers.

On the employment side, the core-aged workforce returned to employment much more quickly than younger or older workers. Over the past two years, core-age employment has increased by 3.0%. Thus, unlike the overall picture, employment has greatly outpaced population growth for those aged 25–54.

As a result, the employment rate for the core-aged workforce has climbed to unprecedented highs for women and has reached the highest level in three decades for men.

In November 2021, the employment rate for core-aged women exceeded 80% for the first time ever, reaching 81.0% in February 2022.

When Statistics Canada’s modern Labour Force Survey began in 1976, the employment rate for core-aged women was a mere 48.2%, compared to 90.8% for men (see Figure 2). Since then, the female employment rate has grown rapidly as constraints to accessing education and employment gradually loosened. Just prior to the pandemic, nearly four out of five (79.7%) core-aged women were employed.

Core-aged men’s employment recovery through 2021 has also been impressive, but it follows a rather different historical track. Over the past 45 years, the core-aged employment rate has trended downward, failing to fully recover after each recession (grey bars in Figure 2).

COVID-19 recovery, in this sense, is proving better for core-aged men: their employment rate has reached 88.2%, the highest since 1989. Thus, while core-aged men’s employment does not match 1970s levels, it is historically high — indicating a very strong recovery from the April 2020 low point.

Figure 2: Employment rate for core-aged women exceeds 80% for the first time

Employment rate for men and women aged 25–54 years, from 1976 to 2021

LMIC; Statistics Canada Table 14-10-0287. Data is seasonally adjusted.

Part-time employment for women exceeds pre-Covid levels

Women have long been over-represented in the part-time workforce (part-time employment is defined as less than 30 hours per week).

Prior to the pandemic, women represented nearly two-thirds (65%) of part-time workers versus 43% of full-time workers.

As of February 2022, part-time employment climbed for both men and women in all age groups. Employment for women who work part-time now either meets or exceeds the pre-covid level, but the recovery of part-time employment continues to be stronger for men 25 years old and over. The largest gain in part-time employment is for men aged 55 years and over, up nearly 7%.

Conversely, as shown in Figure 3, employment gains in full-time work are observed only for core-aged men and women. In the remaining age groups, men’s employment recovery lags slightly their female counterparts.

Full-time employment remains below its February 2020 levels for young (15-24) and older (55+) men and women.

Figure 3: Full-time employment for women is down, except for core-aged women

Employment changes for women and men by full-time and part-time status and age

Changes in full-time and part-time employment for men and women, February 2020 to February 2022. Statistics Canada table 14-10-0287. Data are seasonally adjusted.
Figure 3

Note that it is possible that the slower recovery in part-time employment among core-aged women compared to their male counterparts, coupled with a rise in women’s full-time employment since February 2020, indicates that an increasing share of woman may be working full-time.

However, we cannot be certain that the women who were working part-time prior to the pandemic are the same women who have taken up full-time employment. Data from the Labour Force Survey are cross-sectional (answered by different individuals over time), which means that all we can conclude is that the lagging recovery in part-time employment for women reflects the hard-hit, customer-facing sectors of the economy in which part-time work is more common than in other sectors.

Women recovering in information, culture and recreation occupations, but still over-represented in other hard-hit sectors

Our previous report from one year ago found that women were over-represented in the hardest hit sectors and, within those sectors, women were more likely to lose their jobs.

Figure 4 shows job losses between February 2020 and April 2020 (yellow) in the five hardest hit sectors alongside subsequent job gains up to February 2022 (blue), for women and men. Aggregate changes in employment across all other sectors is also included.

Figure 4: Employment remains low for men and women in the accommodation and food service sector

Changes in employment between February 2020 and April 2020 and from April 2020 to February 2022 for men and women in hard-hit sectors, all ages

Declines February 2020 to April 2020 (Yellow).
Gains April 2020 to February 2022 (Blue).
Statistics Canada table 14-10-0022. Data not adjusted for seasonality.
Figure 4

In April 2020, women’s employment had declined more than men’s within each of these sectors.

Since this low point two years ago, employment in these five sectors has lagged broader recovery, with women’s employment above its pre-COVID level only in information, culture and recreation occupations.

Employment losses for both men and women have been greatest in the accommodation and food services sector. While nearly half of the jobs lost as of April 2020 have been recovered, employment in this sector remains 17% below its pre-pandemic levels for both sexes, with women’s recovery outpacing men’s.

The difference in women’s and men’s initial employment losses was large in the business, building and other support services, retail trade, and other services sectors. Recovery has been stronger for women in other services, as well as in building and other support services.

Women in low-earning occupations have had the slowest recovery

In our 2021 report, we showed that women are more likely to be low income earners, representing three out of five (58%) workers in low-income occupations in 2019 (defined as the 25% of occupations with the lowest average hourly earnings).

Women in these occupations also experienced greater job losses between February 2020 and April 2020 than did men (-23.3% versus -18.9%, respectively).

These occupations span multiple domains including healthcare (nurse aides, orderlies, and patient service associates), education (early childhood educators and assistants), food services (chefs, hosts/hostesses, bartenders, and food and beverage servers) and travel (airline ticket and service agents), as well as other personal service occupations.

As shown in Figure 5, employment for core-aged women in low-earning occupations is slightly up in February 2022 to 0.5% above its pre-pandemic level, despite men’s employment in this group being down 1%. This stands in contrast to the larger employment gains observed for core-aged women in medium (+4.1%) and high income-earning (+4.7%) occupations.

There are several possible forces causing lower employment gains for women in low-earning occupations compared to medium and high-income occupations.

On the one hand, this might reflect a compositional shift across occupations with women working in lower-paying occupations moving into higher-paying ones.

Conversely, women in lower earning occupations might have left the workforce and decided not to return, while a higher share of new entrants into the workforce are starting in higher earning jobs than prior to the pandemic.

Given that the employment rate for core-aged women is at an all time high, it is unlikely that there has been a mass exodus of women in this age group from the labour force.

This means that a portion of the uneven recovery of women in low-income occupations (observed in Figure 5) is most likely due to women moving into higher-paying occupations.

Figure 5: Employment for core-aged women in low-income occupations is up slightly, 0.5% above pre-pandemic levels

Percent change in employment between February 2020 and February 2022 by sex and income level for core-aged persons

LMIC; Data from Statistics Canada's Labour Force Survey (LFS). Data are not seasonally adjusted.
Figure 5

Labour force participation returns to pre-pandemic levels for women with children

At the outset of the pandemic, the labour force participation rate of women aged 25–54 dropped significantly, with larger declines among women with primary-school-aged children.

Since April 2020, the recovery in women’s labour force participation – as with the employment rate shown in Figure 2 – has been rapid.

Remarkably, despite the many challenges parents faced finding childcare and education services during the height of the pandemic, mothers have returned to the workforce in droves.

As of February 2022, the participation rate for core-aged women with children of any age and those without children under 18 is now above pre-pandemic levels (see Figure 6). The participation rate for women with young adult children (18–24 years), however, remains down slightly (not shown).

Figure 6 shows that the recovery in labour force participation is broadly shared by women with children of different ages. Yet, it also highlights the far lower rate of labour force participation among women with very young children (0–5 years) and primary school age children (6–12 years) that persisted prior to the pandemic.

Though not shown, the participation rates for men with children are higher than participation rates for women with children in all age groups. This points to long running systemic issues and cultural expectations around childcare responsibilities that, while important, are beyond the scope of this analysis.

Figure 6: Labour force participation rate dropped significantly for core-aged women in the spring of 2020, but surpassed the pre-pandemic levels in February 2022

Labour force participation rate for women by age of youngest child, February 2020 to February 2022.
No children under 18 includes women with youngest child between 18 and 24 years old, with a child over 24 years old and with no children.
Figure 6

The Way Forward

Since experiencing the initial, unprecedented loss in employment in the spring of 2020, Canadian labour markets have shown resilience both in terms of the overall recovery and in sustaining smaller disruptions through each subsequent wave of COVID-19 and the attendant public health measures put in place. Two years on, employment recovery has been stronger for both women and men.

Last year, in the spring of 2021, our report highlighted the struggles faced by women in returning to employment. Now, as we enter the spring of 2022, women’s employment has fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels, with job recovery among women aged 25–54 being a notable bright spot — they are now employed in greater numbers (relative to the population) than ever before.

However, full-time employment for younger (15–24 years) and older (55+ years) women remains below pre-COVID levels, and employment for part-time core-aged women has only just recovered to February 2020 levels.

These figures may raise longer-term issues if today’s youth, specifically female youth, miss the opportunity to gain work experience and develop the skills they will need for later career development.

Lastly, we note that while the impact of school and childcare closures has been challenging for all parents, the initial decline in the labour force participation among women with children have now been fully reversed. Core-aged women with children of any age and women with no children are now participating in the labour force at pre-pandemic rates or higher.

The latest figures reported here are for February 2022, which reflect the loosening of many public health measures introduced in January 2022.

While there remains the possibility that future variants might cause additional labour market disruptions, the successful roll out of vaccines through 2021 and the adaption of many work practices is building our collective resilience to the COVID-19 virus. We will continue to track the labour market recovery for women, men and other groups of Canadians, but as of March 2022 the outlook is a positive and hopeful one.

Acknowledgements

This LMI Insight Report was prepared by Brittany Feor and Behnoush Amery of LMIC with the support of Anthony Mantione and Liz Betsis.

We would like to thank Jane Friesen (Simon Fraser University), Ana Ferrer (University of Waterloo), Mikal Skuterud (University of Waterloo), Sareena Hopkins (Canadian Career Development Foundation), Marc Gendron (Employment and Social Development Canada), Sarah McRae (Government of New Brunswick), Emna Braham (Institut du Québec), Parisa Mahboubi (C.D. Howe Institute), Clemente Pignatti (International Labour Organization) and Richard Horne for their feedback and constructive comments.

For more information about this report please contact Brittany Feor, economist, at brittany.feor@lmic-cimt.ca; and Behnoush Amery, senior economist, at behnoush.amery@lmic-cimt.ca.

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