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Pamela Jeffrey in her Stratford, Ont. home on April 20, 2020. Jeffrey is leading The Prosperity Project.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that schools would remain closed through the end of June, working mothers burst into tears.

Although relieved that our children are being protected from a deadly virus, many of us are mourning our careers. Already, this pandemic is making women more invisible to employers as they work from home or not work at all because of layoffs.

Millions of women have been doing double-duty with work and child care for the past 10 weeks. Some are single moms. Others have partners who refuse to do their share of parenting and housework. The prospect of six more weeks of home schooling and a dearth of summer programs means many women will be forced to shelve their professional ambitions for the foreseeable future – even though the economy is reopening.

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A new non-profit organization launching on Thursday wants to make sure that women stepping back from the workplace does not become the new normal. The Prosperity Project (TPP), supported by 64 female leaders from across Canada, is being led by Pamela Jeffery, founder of the Women’s Executive Network and Canadian Board Diversity Council. TPP’s goal is to ensure that women continue to play a central role, and that COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis do not erase gender gains in the workplace.

“I am very concerned about the risks of women, not only being dropped from the path to prosperity, but not even getting the opportunity to participate because of COVID-19,” Ms. Jeffery said in an interview.

TPP will enlist women from across Canada to participate in a long-term prosperity study. It will analyze how women’s choices, including employment, affect their well-being, providing a huge body of longitudinal data. It will also create a new Canadian household purchasing index to measure women’s confidence in the economy.

From the results, the organization will develop resources to help women stay in the work force and advance.

This is a chance for women who are fed up with being overlooked at work and in society to be heard. It’s imperative that women participate in this research, especially those who identify as Indigenous, women of colour, refugees, persons with disabilities and LGBTQ2+. Nothing will ever change if women are silent.

Policy makers need those insights. Women contribute a growing share of families’ earnings (47 per cent in 2015 versus 25 per cent in 1976, according to Statistics Canada), and are often in charge of household finances.

Additionally, TPP aims to collect and publish annually the number of women in leadership roles and those being groomed for those jobs at the 500 largest companies, including publicly traded corporations, government-owned businesses, privately held companies, co-operatives and subsidiaries of foreign-owned corporations.

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To address growing demand for social services for women, such as skills training, crisis counselling and mental-health support, TPP will match professional people who are willing to share their business expertise with not-for-profit organizations that help women.

Lastly, an awareness campaign inspired by Rosie the Riveter, an icon of the Second World War era, will promote women’s participation and advancement in the workforce.

“Prosperity and equality are inextricably linked,” Christy Clark, co-chair of the working group responsible for the longitudinal survey, and a former premier of British Columbia, said in a telephone interview.

“Work and income is for many women, not for all, a really important source of self-worth and fulfillment in a society where we really do measure so much of someone’s worth based on, not who they are, but what they do,” she added.

The novel coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately affecting women, she said. First, women are working but also doing most of the child care, supervising school work and household chores. Second, domestic abuse cases have spiked during the lockdown. Third, women are more likely to hold service-sector jobs, which are often non-unionized and less secure.

Although job losses were more evenly divided in April, women suffered nearly 63 per cent of job losses in March, according to Statistics Canada. Concerns are growing that progress toward gender parity could be undone if women fail to re-enter the work force because they lack child care.

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“They are the ones who got laid off first and they’re the ones who will come back last," Ms. Clark said. "It’s really taken a big bite out of women’s economic independence.”

Closing the gender gap would provide a much-needed boost to the Canadian economy, adding $150-billion to forecast 2026 GDP, according to a 2017 study by McKinsey & Co. Moreover, companies that achieve gender parity also generate better financial results, the Shareholder Association for Research and Education says.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have to help reset Canada’s economy, so let’s not waste it,” Ms. Jeffery said. “When women succeed, we all prosper.”

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