Politicians and women's groups in Newfoundland and Labrador are raising their voices to detail how the pandemic has hit women particularly hard — and discussing what can be done to move closer to gender equality, and not simply during the era of COVID-19.
The early consensus on the pandemic's effects upon Canadian women show widespread job upheaval, stress and increased workloads. A recent Royal Bank of Canada report stated women's participation in the workforce has dipped to its lowest level since the 1980s; another report from Deloitte detailed that women are at the centre of what it terms a "human crisis" of mental health issues spiralling out of COVID-19.
Little of this is news to Helen Conway Ottenheimer.
"We know that the structural inequalities exist, but now they're intensified and compounded by the pandemic," said Conway Ottenheimer, MHA for Harbour Main and the PCs' Status of Women critic.
On the west coast, Paula Sheppard Thibeau is seeing the same setbacks.
"We saw that with COVID, and the shutdown of the economy, and many people leaving their workplace and returning home that this burden, again, became disproportionately handed to usually the female in the traditional family," said Sheppard Thibeau, who is the executive director of the Corner Brook Status of Women Council.
Conway Ottenheimer is urging the province to tackle the complicated issue, and increase resources for women, particularly when it comes to mental health, through such things as more counselling or phone lines. The province did unveil a domestic abuse hotline in June, which had been demanded for years.
Still, Conway Ottenheimer said it's clearly time for the provincial government to expand on its actions. With only 10 of the province's 40 MHAs identifying as female — six of whom are in the ruling Liberal party — she urged the provincial government not to act without inviting more female voices to the table.
"We've been drawing upon the same lens to solve the problems. But that's not really addressing the issues, in my opinion," she said.
"Any future economic planning has to take a more of a broader, gender-based analysis. And we need to look at any type of viable solution, or viable recovery plan, that includes and centres on the voices and experiences of women."
A second look at the 'second shift'
Conway Ottenheimer suggested the expertise is already there to draw from.
"I think it's important to tap into the many incredible networks of women and women's organizations in our province. They would be best suited and in a good position to play a more important advisory role," she told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.
The Corner Brook Status of Women Council is trying an education tactic to help ease the burden the pandemic has placed on half the population.
Equality starts at home. - Paula Sheppard Thibeau
It's created a video highlighting the "second shift," a term coined in the late 1980s for the hours of unpaid labour women do outside of their careers, whether it be housework, child or elder care.
"The Second Shift campaign is really just a gentle reminder that, 'Wait a second, let's reassess the situation: in the household, is Mom doing everything?'" said Valetta Colbourne, the council's project co-ordinator.
That "everything" has been upped during the pandemic to include homeschooling, extra sanitation and disinfecting, and managing family emotions in a time of uncertainty.
"It really doesn't necessarily have to be the mom, the female, but are we all doing our part? Is there someone in the house taking on that role and really having to do everything, having to work a second shift? if so, it's time to pull up your boots and get to work," she said.
No less important, said Colbourne, is the notion of pitching in for the sake of sharing work — not as a favour for an overworked mother.
"It's not for Mom. Once that's the mentality, you've already lost the battle. It's for the whole family. So, for every member to think, 'I'm going to do this one thing to keep the household running,' that's what we're looking for," she told CBC Radio's Newfoundland Morning.
"Equality starts at home," agreed Sheppard Thibeau.
Mat leave woes
Inequality outside the home was highlighted this week when a St. John's hairstylist in her third trimester spoke out about her inability to get answers about maternity leave benefits affected by COVID-19. Samantha McLennon doesn't have enough hours to qualify before her baby arrives, and she has been looking for help.
One of the people McLennon reached out to was NDP MP Jack Harris, and she hasn't been the only one.
"We've had several calls over the last number of months concerning this very question," Harris said.
Harris said the fix should be straightforward, with the federal government providing some flexibility to qualify.
"This is a longer conversation, but one of the things that the pandemic and the response has done [is] exposed how many vulnerable people there are, in our society and in our system, and we do need a permanent solution for this," said Harris.
Conway Ottenheimer said McLennon's case illustrates deep, systemic problems with how maternity leave is handled.
"It's outdated, it's bureaucratic. It's badly in need of an overhaul. It needs to be changed in order to meet the needs of modern women."
The federal minister overseeing such benefits, Carla Qualtrough, has pledged that pregnant women will not fall through the cracks, although no formal policy changes or regulations have been announced.
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