Opinion: Calgary’s post-pandemic plan will fail by excluding women

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According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Calgary ranks consistently among the worst cities in Canada for women to live and work, largely as a consequence of their poor economic security. “Economic security” refers to whether or not women have access to stable, sustainable employment that enables them to support themselves and their dependent children.

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In Calgary, they largely do not.

First, there’s the rate of women living in poverty. According to the latest available municipal census data (in other words, before the coronavirus pandemic), 28 per cent of First Nations women, 23 per cent of single mothers and 15 per cent of visible minority women in our city live in poverty. The good news, according to a 2022 poverty snapshot produced by Vibrant Communities Calgary and also based largely on data gathered before the pandemic, is that “while women remain over-represented nationally among those experiencing poverty, this trend appears to be diminishing in Alberta and Calgary.”

But as the poverty snapshot also reveals, “Equity issues persist with women making up a greater share of people on low wages.” At 66 cents on the dollar, Alberta’s gender wage gap is the second-highest in Canada. In other words, from mid-September to the end of December, most women in Alberta work essentially for free.

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Third, there’s the dismal rate of women in the paid workforce. According to Calgary Neighbourhoods, the city’s “business unit tasked with addressing the social needs of the individuals and communities of Calgary,” only 47 per cent of Calgarian women work outside the home for wages. But these jobs are largely in the undervalued, underpaid areas of what Statistics Canada calls the five Cs: care work, clerical work, catering, cashiering and cleaning. These jobs are also largely part-time, contingent, and without benefits. “Women have high rates of part-time work in Calgary compared to other big cities,” said the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in 2019. Indeed, even before the pandemic, Calgary’s gender gap in full-time employment was a whopping 81.2 per cent.

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Obviously, “normal” wasn’t working for the vast majority of women in our city, and COVID has made an already bad situation much, much worse.

Research emerging from the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management reveals that women faced disproportionate job loss during the pandemic. Those who did keep their jobs were more likely than men to be front-line workers in low-pay, low-value essential services and were thus more likely to do high-contact, economically insecure and unprotected work. In addition, women’s unpaid domestic and caregiving burden increased and intensified. It’s important to note, too, that Indigenous, racialized, low-income, LGBTQ2S+ and other oppressed groups have been more negatively affected than white settler women.

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And when women are economically insecure, so are their families, including their dependent children. This has been borne out in Calgary in recent years by the sharp increase in women accessing the Calgary Food Bank and the Women’s Centre’s Basic Needs Program.

Shockingly, despite the long history of women’s economic insecurity in our city that worsened during the pandemic, the City of Calgary’s post-pandemic recovery plans do not explicitly include women. The city is (quite rightly) thinking about seniors, children and youth, new Canadians, Indigenous people, and housing insecure and unhoused people. But women and girls are nowhere.

The problem, though, is that we are also everywhere. In fact, because women tend to live longer than men, we comprise a majority of seniors. We are also a significant percentage of children and youth. We are new Canadians and Indigenous people. And we are housing insecure and unhoused people.

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Precisely because we are everywhere, the absence from the city’s post-pandemic recovery plans of “women” as a category of concern — even though it is women who have been most negatively affected by the pandemic — is a sure path to failure.

As early as April 2020, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres urged governments to put women and girls at the centre of their pandemic recovery efforts. “Gender equality and women’s rights are essential to getting through this pandemic together, to recovering faster, and to building a better future for everyone,” he said. He emphasized that all “measures to protect and stimulate the economy … must be targeted at women.” The Calgary Chamber of Commerce agrees, arguing in June 2020 that Calgary now has an unprecedented “opportunity to put in place public and organizational policies that ensure equality and help to remedy many of the structural economic disadvantages that occur due to gendered differences.”

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So, I’m calling on Mayor Jyoti Gondek and city council to follow the advice not only of scholars and activists, but also of the United Nations and its own chamber of commerce by building and implementing a feminist, anti-racist COVID-19 response and recovery plan that includes (at least) policies that acknowledge unpaid work, expanded access to childcare, a plan to lobby the province to support a guaranteed basic income, and a commitment to systemically incorporate intersectional, gender-based analysis (GBA+) across all municipal policy-making moving forward. This undertaking could be overseen by a newly appointed special adviser to the mayor on the status of women, gender, and sexualities.

Additionally, I call on Gondek and our councillors to form the city’s first-ever gender equity action committee that would be akin to and work in collaboration with the new anti-racism action committee, whose goal since it was formed in October 2020 has been to “oversee the development of a community-based anti-racism strategy.” As necessary as eradicating racism is to the future of our city (and it is), so is relieving women’s economic insecurity.

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Solving this historical problem, which has only worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, will take time, dedication and co-operation. Several community organizations, including the Women’s Centre, Vibrant Communities Calgary, Basic Income Calgary, and Fair Fares Calgary, are already collaborating on city-wide anti-poverty initiatives, but they need the city to step up in a big way. A feminist, anti-racist COVID-19 response and recovery plan, in combination with the creation of a gender equity action committee and the appointment of Calgary’s first-ever special adviser to the mayor on the status of women, gender and sexualities, is a guaranteed way to move the needle on poverty reduction efforts in our city.

Kimberly A. Williams is an associate professor and co-ordinator of women’s and gender studies at Mount Royal University.

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