Women in business disproportionately affected by COVID-19 pandemic, report finds

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By Sarah Tomlinson

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate economic impact on women in business, according to a new report led by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with Ted Rogers School of Management’s Diversity Institute. 

Female participation in the labour force fell to its lowest level in 30 years, the report found. This March, women aged 25 to 54 lost more than twice as many jobs as men in Ontario. They’ve also had a slower recovery between April and August, gaining only 131,700 jobs compared to the 200,200 jobs gained by men. 

The report also showed that 61 per cent of female business founders lost contracts, customers and clients due to COVID-19, compared to just 34 per cent of all small businesses. As a result, female-owned businesses laid off a disproportionately higher percentage of their workers than businesses owned by men.

Alyssa Tang, a third-year accounting and finance student and former business consultant for Ryerson’s Business Innovation Hub, said a female entrepreneur she worked with was forced to lay off an employee and rely on her friends for pro bono marketing work. 

Female entrepreneurs were generally impacted more than men because the sectors they tend to work in—such as retail, food and accommodations, arts and recreation and social services—were more likely to temporarily close at the start of the pandemic, the study found. Female-led businesses are also generally newer, smaller and less financed. The “digital divide” for those with less connectivity in low income or rural locations also disparaged women-owned businesses more than men.

Additionally, some female entrepreneurs found themselves having to also manage child care given daycare and school closures; unpaid hours are often delegated for taking care of family instead of focusing on business.  

To combat this, more accessibility to affordable child care is one of the report’s first suggestions after increased female leadership. It also encouraged the learning of new skills and policy changes to provide more flexible work schedules. 

Good intentions might exist for assisting women-led businesses, but they’re nothing without intentional action, explained Wendy Cukier, founder of Ryerson’s Diversity Institute. The Diversity Institute has conducted research on diversity and inclusion in Canada and developed impactful programs like the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub, an organization which shares research and resources on women entrepreneurs in Canada. 

“If you intersect child care, and look at racialized women and women with disabilities, all of the challenges are multiplied”

“The federal government has already commited to do things like gender diversity analysis, but you need to have a very high level of not just accountability but also transparency,” said Cukier. “You need to be publishing data on who’s getting the grants and who’s getting support.” 

What’s needed are intentional responses to systemic issues facing women in business, according to Cukier. 

“It’s one thing to say we will give you extra points if you’re a woman-led business applying for a government contract. But if the government procurement processes are so complicated that small businesses can’t really navigate them, it’s not going to actually translate into change.” 

The report also found that women from marginalized backgrounds were even more negatively impacted by job loss. Racialized Canadians were twice as likely as white Canadians to stop looking for paid work as a result of increased domestic responsibilities, according to the report. They were also more likely to say they suffered emotionally because of a relative lack of access to care related infrastructure and services. 

“If you intersect child care, and look at racialized women and women with disabilities, all of the challenges are multiplied,” Cukier said. 

Katherine Tran is a fourth-year global management studies student and business consultant for Ryerson’s Business Innovation Hub, which provides services and training for small and medium-sized businesses struggling to adjust to COVID-19 restrictions. She said her organization is one avenue for women in business to cope with the added pressures of COVID-19 on systemic issues. 

“Our services range from government grant funding to creating e-commerce stores so that these businesses can shift online and stay competitive in this new landscape. We also have marketing, social media content, video production and editing,” said Tran. 

Alison Perdue is a fifth-year music business student and creator of Kismet Management, a management company for independent artists and a radio show based in Toronto. She said she thinks creativity is essential for students or women who are looking to maintain or create a business. 

It starts with using this time to build an audience that is engaged, she said. “It’s about learning as much as you can and building up skills, so that when COVID is done, you’re just ready for different opportunities to take whatever you’re doing to the next level.” 

For students who are trying to start their own business, Tang said they need to think about the marketability of their idea during the pandemic and utilize all the free resources Ryerson has to offer. 

“If you leave out 51 per cent of the population when you’re looking at your innovation, economic development or social inclusion strategies, you’re missing the boat”

“If you want to start your own business and you invest your money into it, and it turns out people don’t actually want to buy your product or service, then you’re kind of going to be in more of a hole,” she said. “But, if you go into the Ryerson entrepreneurship department, there’s a lot of free resources there for students.” 

According to a report by McKinsey and Company, by 2026, an increase in women’s participation in the workforce could add $150 billion to Canada’s annual gross domestic product. 

“If you leave out 51 per cent of the population when you’re looking at your innovation, economic development or social inclusion strategies, you’re missing the boat. The evidence is very strong worldwide, that investing in women reaps benefits for everybody,” Cukier said. 

The report also said the increase in women’s participation would further drive gender equality.

“Just from my perspective, I find that women are a lot more empathetic, nurturing and caring when they’re in leadership roles. We know how to handle stressful situations, whereas men are more to the point and critical,” she said.

“There’s always some benefits to having that type of nurturing and empathetic outlook when dealing with your employees.” 

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