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Almost half a million Canadian women who lost their jobs during the pandemic hadn’t returned to work as of January, according to a recent RBC Economics report.Geber86/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Without action, the true cost of women leaving the workforce during the pandemic will be paid well into the future due to the erosion of skills and retracement of gender diversity efforts, Canadian executives warn.

Almost half a million Canadian women who lost their jobs during the pandemic hadn’t returned to work as of January, according to a recent RBC Economics report citing Statistics Canada data, and more than 200,000 had slipped into the ranks of the long-term unemployed. About 100,000 women age 20 and older have left the Canadian labour force entirely since February 2020, 10 times more than men, the RBC report states.

At one point last year, women’s participation in the labour market fell from a historic high to its lowest level in more than 30 years, another RBC report notes. The longer women are away from work, the RBC economists say, the longer it could take them to get rehired or advance their careers, threatening decades of labour force gains.

“The long-term impacts of all this are truly staggering,” said Paulette Senior, president and chief executive officer at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “The pandemic threatens women’s overall economic independence, which has always been precarious because of the many forms of discrimination that we face.”

Ms. Senior made the comments as part of the Globe and Mail’s second annual Women Lead Here virtual summit held on March 31, presented by EY, featuring some top executives discussing how to grow female representation at the heights of corporate Canada.

While female workforce participation has rebounded somewhat in recent months, Ms. Senior said the recovery has been particularly slow for women in their early 20s, racialized women, newcomer women

and mothers. She’s concerned about the long-term unemployed who will find it more difficult to re-enter the workforce. Long term, it means there will be fewer women, including women of colour, in the running for leadership roles.

“Before the pandemic, things were not great, so this call for going back to normal is not what a lot of us want,” Ms. Senior said. “Isn’t this a great opportunity to actually utilize this moment in history that we now have to actually make different decisions because we know it’s possible to do that?”

Despite the chaos unleashed by the pandemic, a December review of 478 of the largest publicly traded companies in Canada for the Globe and Mail’s annual Women Lead Here survey found some small signs of progress. The survey shows 41 per cent of companies surveyed increased the percentage of women executives in their ranks over the past year, while 22 per cent had a decrease and 37 per cent stayed the same.

There were 29 female CEOs in the group of 478 compared to 28 last year, and 20 per cent of executive roles were held by women, up 18 per cent from 2020. Still, the number of companies without a single female executive dropped to 124 or 26 per cent of the 478 versus 151 last year.

The pandemic has enabled a workplace flexibility that needs to continue to help women juggle their different responsibilities, said Deborah Orida, senior managing director and global head of real assets at the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPP Investments).

“We hope that will allow women… juggling different things in their lives some flexibility [so they can] stay with us rather than having to take a step back during the busiest times of their lives,” she said. “What we need is to entrench flexible work and engage everyone, including men, in ensuring that we don’t see regression during the recovery.”

Rob Wesseling, CEO of insurance company The Co-operators Group Ltd., said his company has a 50-50 gender split in the C-suite, which happened through a deliberate strategy of hiring and promoting women.

Not only did the company seek out qualified women to fill positions, it also discussed with candidates how the job could be done differently from exiting executives, who were often men. The company also began promoting women while on maternity leave, holding jobs for their return if necessary.

“We ensure we get the best candidate because these roles, these careers, are not about the next year and a half; they’re about the next decade,” Mr. Wesseling said.

The company also began to normalize expectations for men when it comes to family commitments.

“It’s important that we’re saying to our male colleagues as well that ‘we expect you to take time off when you have a family commitment,’ the same way that we enable our women colleagues to do so,” he said.

Corporations also need to be aware of unconscious bias, said Christine Discola, director and country human resources officer for Citi Canada, whose parent company Citigroup breached the glass ceiling last fall by naming the first female CEO of a major U.S. bank.

“We know that two-thirds of promotions go to men rather than women, and that’s not because women are any less qualified or any less ambitious,” Ms. Discola said.

Citi set a goal three years ago to increase representation at the assistant vice-president through managing-director levels to at least 40 per cent women globally. The company hopes to reach that goal by the end of this year.

Corporate leaders say targets and timelines work best to achieve gender diversity targets.

Sonia Kang, Canada research chair in identity, diversity and inclusion at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, recommends organizations make structural changes to help close the gender gap.

“You can make changes in... the way these things are set up, so that you’re not falling back on ‘fit,’” said Dr. Kang, who is also an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at Rotman.

Companies should hire for skills rather than “cultural fit,” she said, and ensure job postings attract diverse candidates. Dr. Kang said there are third-party tools available to evaluate resumes and remove the risk of unconscious bias.

Organizations should also use quotas, she said. “Everywhere that quotas have been implemented they’ve worked really well,” Dr. Kang said.

It’s not just employees that benefit from diversity and inclusion, added Agapi Gessesse, executive director of the CEE Center for Young Black Professionals.

“Diversity and inclusion are beneficial to your bottom line,” Ms. Gessesse said, citing research showing diverse companies are more profitable.

“We need to change our minds about how we’re viewing diversity and inclusion... It affects your bottom line.”