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The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women in Canada over the past six months has been well-documented.

More Canadian women have contracted the virus and more Canadian women have died from the disease than men in the country, according to a Canadian government report. More women have also lost their jobs as a result of the drastic and needed actions taken to limit the spread of the virus.

For mothers in Canada, the impact has been even more significant.

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A July report from RBC Economics found that the re-employment rate for mothers with school-age kids who lost their jobs during the lockdown lagged that of fathers with children of the same age by five percentage points. In terms of hours worked, mothers with children under six years old have seen their hours fall 17 per cent through the pandemic compared with just 4 per cent for men.

The report also found that women who were shouldering the burden of child care were more likely to “fall out” of the labour force, noting that nearly a third of the women who lost their jobs between February and June were not seeking new employment.

In recent years, Canadian organizations have made steady progress on gender diversity. But the effects of COVID-19 put these gains at risk. The inability for a growing number of women to participate in the Canadian work force threatens to turn the clock back and erode the clear benefits that diverse work forces bring organizations.

The good news on this front is that Canadian leaders increasingly understand the value of diversity to the health of their organizations. Further, KPMG’s recent CEO Outlook found that even prior to the pandemic, 68 per cent of Canadian leaders believed their organization’s diversity performance would see increased scrutiny over the next three years.

To ensure we, as leaders, don’t lose the gains we’ve made on inclusion and diversity and suddenly find ourselves out of step with the expectations of our employees, customers and society as a whole, we think it is critical to focus on four key areas.

Be flexible

Remember that most mothers on your team are facing unprecedented challenges at home. Empower managers with the ability to be creative and flexible in accommodating employee needs so you retain the people and skills you need to sustain and expand your business. Listen to what your teams are dealing with and find alternative solutions, including short-term leaves of absence and part-time options to avoid having an employee feel she must make the drastic decision to quit.

Assess your employee-support systems to see if they are adequate for the pandemic.

All employees are dealing with the stress of a prolonged and restrictive pandemic. For parents, especially mothers, the stress is even greater. Ensure you have adequate mental-health programs and resources to deal with these unique challenges. If your employees are working remotely, tell them it is not only okay but encouraged that they balance work with home commitments and don’t feel they need to be online 24/7.

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Understand the importance of your talent pipeline.

Many analysts have noted that ensuring women have equal access to leadership and development opportunities early in their career is key to addressing the gender gap at the senior level – and historically, women have not been on equal footing. Many organizations have taken steps over the years to address this, but the effects of COVID-19 on working mothers threaten to choke this off if we don’t act now. In a remote-working environment, it is also important not to overlook the need to provide women with strong mentoring and opportunities to hone their leadership capabilities.

Address conscious and unconscious bias in your policies, processes and people

Canadian organizations have been focused on dismantling conscious and unconscious biases in their organizations. But the realities of COVID-19 have amplified that need. Biases against working from home, parenting issues and mental-health stigmas could be driving forces pushing your female employees out of the work force. While you may officially offer opportunities for short-term leaves of absences and to work part time during the crisis, you need to ensure your people feel safe to apply for these without fear of missing out or being penalized in terms of future opportunities when they return.

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the importance, tenacity and resiliency of Canada’s working mothers.

As leaders, it is important we don’t lose sight of the unprecedented challenges facing working moms. We need to quickly find and implement solutions that will allow us to continue to attract and retain this essential talent, so integral to our success.


Handout

Elio Luongo, left, is CEO and senior partner of KPMG in Canada. He is the Leadership Lab columnist for September, 2020. Silvia Montefiore, right, is Canadian managing partner and COO of KPMG in Canada.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today or follow us at @Globe_Careers.

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