Opinion

Opinion: Women, hit hardest by pandemic, key to economic recovery

Events of the past year have laid bare the many disparities and inequities faced by our country’s citizens. Women who are filling critical roles to aid in the nation’s response to COVID-19 have been disproportionately and negatively impacted by the pandemic with extraordinary levels of job loss and economic hardship.

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce She-covery Project revealed that women ages 25 to 54 lost more than twice as many jobs as men in Ontario in March 2020.

Racialized women, more specifically, Black and Indigenous women, those living in rural communities or with disabilities, as well as single women are bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s economic impact.

The picture is no better for female entrepreneurs. Where women account for 38 per cent of self-employed Canadians, 61 per cent of female founders reported losing contracts, customers and clients due to COVID-19, compared with 34 per cent of all small businesses.

Women have been hit hardest by the pandemic, but they are also the key to our economic recovery. Investing in women-centred organizations with innovative solutions should be top of the federal government agenda.

While the news is grim, there is hope. Women have been rising up to tackle the country’s social and economic problems, such as gender and inclusivity, in innovative ways. Take Canada’s PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise, as only one example. Founded in 1995, PARO has been called a poster child for social innovation. What began as a peer group of women supporting each other to start their own socially purposed businesses has grown into the largest peer-lending network for women entrepreneurs with more than 170 peer groups across North America.

The key to PARO’s success is its ‘women-centred’ approach and ‘wraparound.’ Wraparound involves working together with other organizations or community partners with deep experience and expertise in such areas as domestic violence, gender equity and skills to help women find success as business owners. PARO starts where the woman is at the time of entry and provides the financial support and training that she needs, in addition to these ‘wraparound’ services.

Today, these non-profit, women-led organizations are struggling to respond to community need with stagnant funding and lack of recognition for the important work they do and how they do it.

Women-centred organizations are poised to be integral players in Canada’s recovery and rebuild efforts. The economic payoff alone is significant. According to a report by McKinsey and Company, it is estimated that, by 2026, Canada could add $150-billion to its annual GDP by supporting women’s participation in the workforce. What stands in the way is a national social innovation and social finance strategy, as well as a framework and funding to make it work.

In 2018, the Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy Co-Creation Steering Group released its report together with 12 key recommendations in Inclusive Innovation: New Ideas and New Partnerships for Stronger Communities. The federal government responded with promises of a Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy, the launch of a $50-million Investment Readiness Fund and $755-million Social Finance Fund.

Thanks to government action on the Investment Readiness Fund, more non-profit and social enterprise organizations are prepared with the knowledge and infrastructure to replicate and grow. They understand how to leverage government investment to attract private-sector investment for greater impact. They know their communities and what they need.

The federal government’s last full budget, in 2019, made promises on the Social Finance Fund that need to be kept. The upcoming budget provides an opportunity to once again prioritize Social Innovation and Social Finance in the face of an unprecedented need.

We no longer live in a world that accepts inequities and vulnerabilities. If anything, COVID-19 has taught us this. Investing in women, through socially innovative women-centred organizations, is a critical step toward a post-COVID economic recovery that doesn’t leave anyone on the sidelines.

Rosalind Lockyer is founder and CEO of PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise and serves on the board of directors of the Women’s Economic Council. She was awarded the International Award for Women of the Decade in Community Leadership from the Women’s Economic Forum in 2018.

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