Why women and the economy matter now more than ever

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At the end of June 2021, I was privileged to be asked by the Government of Ontario to Chair the Task Force on Women and the Economy. We were asked to consult and report back with actionable recommendations to the Ontario Government by the end of the summer in three targeted areas: women entering and re-entering the workforce; women in entrepreneurship and small business; and, women in underrepresented areas, specifically skilled trades and STEM fields.  

The eight other women on the Task Force are all impressively multi-talented, coming from diverse backgrounds, occupations and life experiences. We have been meeting with groups from across Ontario and receiving written submission about what can be done immediately to help women who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID. A number of the issues that have come out of the consultations are long-standing, exacerbated by the pandemic and making already challenging situations more difficult. New issues have also arisen as the way we work as Ontarians dramatically shifted during the pandemic, in some cases permanently.   

I do not share the view that there is nothing that governments can do to help women’s path to the workforce and their lived experiences when they are in workplaces. Nor do I share the view that there are no real barriers facing women in Canada that are different than those shared by the whole population. That certainly is not what we have been hearing during our consultations. Women and groups have shared with us their experiences with the systemic discrimination and negative attitudes about the roles and abilities of women that unfortunately remain pervasive on job sites, in offices and in education systems. 

While improving, we heard about the pay equity gaps that still exist, and the lack of representation in senior leadership and board opportunities for women. We heard that young women entering professions are told they need to have a “thick skin” to survive in currently male-dominated occupations. We heard that women are desperately trying to balance childcare responsibilities, eldercare responsibilities, work responsibilities, and their own mental health. We heard about the critical importance of ensuring mentorship so young women can see themselves in the roles to which they aspire. We heard that funding programs sometimes do not take into account the unique contexts that women occupy. Finally, we heard that in some cases, the tools and supports women need are very different than the tools and supports needed, and provided to men.  

While family responsibilities, still predominately led by women in their households, are clearly a key driver of choices women make with respect to their careers, there are other elements that impact women from a very early age on.

What we are told by our parents and educators as little girls has a large influence on what we believe we can do and what we should do professionally later on. How we are treated in our classrooms and whether or not other women are there with us, influences whether we want to be there. The practices and cultures of workplaces, once we have completed our training, influences whether we want to actually use our skills or will walk about from toxic environments (if we have the financial ability to do so). All of these occur far prior to the added pressure of family responsibilities.    

One of my key takeaways from the Task Force’s consultations so far is that there is a strong desire and huge creative energy to create positive change and opportunities for women in the workplace – right now. There are wonderful programs and services that already exist in Ontario communities that are providing supports, information, training, skills development, and encouragement to help women succeed. There is incredible innovation already happening in Ontario to support female entrepreneurship and assisting women re-entering the workforce.  There are real opportunities to look at these programs and suggest how they could be amplified to broaden their reach.  

Now is the time to challenge assumptions, learn from best practices in other provinces and countries and think outside the box. And while thinking through how we can provide assistance to women in our economy may be a wicked problem to tackle, no positive change can happen without taking those first few steps.

Karin Schnarr is associate professor of policy and law at Wilfrid Laurier’s Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, where she is also director of the school’s MBA program. Schnarr is currently involved in research related to women entrepreneurs, AI in strategic decision-making, and case-learning in entrepreneurship education. Schnarr was named chair of the Ontario government’s Task Force on Women and the Economy in June. Prior to academia, she served as chief of staff at several provincial ministries, including Health and Long-Term Care, Environment, Attorney General, and Transportation. Schnarr holds both an MBA and PhD in Strategic Management from Western University’s Ivey School of Business.  

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