Canadian Medical Association

This week marks a year of loss. Since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, millions of people have lost their lives. Millions more have seen their way of life drastically altered. We were told at the beginning of the pandemic that “we are all in this together.” One year later, it is clear that we are not. On the eve of International Women’s Day — a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women around the world — we must recognize how decades of women’s progress in the workplace have been threatened by COVID-19. 

Within two months of the pandemic’s onset, 1.5 million women in Canada had lost their jobs. This is more than the entire population of Greater Ottawa. And while a similar number of men also became unemployed, they managed to return to the workforce much more quickly than women.

For many women, what started as a temporary hiatus from work is now permanent, with women’s participation in the labour force dropping from an all-time high to the lowest level since the mid-1980s. 

In the health care sector, the pressures on women are exponential. Women make up about 80% of our health care workforce.

In medicine, 43% of Canada’s physicians are women, a statistic that represents decades of challenges to break into what was once a male-dominated profession. During this pandemic, every single one of these women is needed. But just like women in other workplaces, they are confronted with juggling childcare, remote learning and demanding work schedules. 

I am also deeply concerned for the future of other health care fields. More than 90% of nurses in Canada are women, and the same is true of personal support workers, care aides and many other disciplines. Three-quarters of our respiratory therapists are women, and so are 80% of lab staff. 

When we talk about people on the front lines of this pandemic, we are often talking about women. They are bearing the brunt of this crisis — not only at work but also at home. They are reporting higher levels of burnout and expressing the feeling that they are unable to adequately manage all that is asked of them.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #ChoosetoChallenge, and we need to challenge the acceptance of the losses women have experienced. The disproportionate impact of this pandemic on women and racialized communities is putting our country on a troubling backwards trajectory. We are all collectively responsible for challenging the status quo to ensure that women are not only part of, but at the forefront of, our country’s post-pandemic recovery.

Dr. Ann Collins, CMA president

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