03/29/2017 04:27 EDT | Updated 03/29/2017 04:30 EDT

Mothers In The Workforce Are Key To Future Economic Stability

There are many poignant moments in the 2011 version of Mildred Pierce, but one always stood out for me in its rawness. Set in the 1930s, suburban mother Mildred strikes out on her own to look for work after her husband leaves her for another woman, only to be told that she isn't qualified for anything because she has been out of the workforce too long.

Much has changed since the 1930s, yet women still face the same problems reintegrating into the labour force after a family-related employment break.

working mothers

The segment of the 2017 federal budget on labour market challenges for women described the well-known problems women face, but offered few solutions. Focusing instead on ancillary issues such as the Canada Child Benefit, promotion of science-based careers for women, and top-ups for the Guaranteed Income Supplement for retired women, the main gender-based issue facing Canada was almost totally ignored -- that of women's labour force participation.

In Canada, women's involvement in the labour force has stalled at 82 per cent compared to 91 per cent for men. And this is a problem not only for women's financial stability and self-actualization, but also has a much broader economic impact. According to a recent IMF study, the estimated gain in GDP for countries that close their labour force gender gaps ranges from 15-35 percent. Closing that gender gap in Canada will be critical in the upcoming years, as our aging labour force will have a negative effect on economic growth.

Although women and men start off their careers on more-or-less equal footing, that equality erodes over time and particularly after a woman has her first child. It is a fact that women in the family formation years have lower employment rates than men, and women with young children are more likely to work part-time, or to stay out of the work force entirely. The barriers that women face in remaining in or reintegrating into the labour force during these years are due to a host of factors, in particular ongoing challenges balancing work and family. This means lower wages, fewer benefits, less job stability, and loss of overall earning potential over one's lifetime. This is exacerbated with each additional child.

I am one of the privileged ones -- I will eventually get the kind of job I am looking for.

Even a few years out of the workforce puts women at an extreme disadvantage in an already competitive labour market, and a lack of hands-on, recent experience is often enough to disqualify an application.

There have been a few days when I have felt a little like Mildred Pierce in my bid to re-enter the full-time work force. Government job application processes "screen you out" if you don't cut and paste the right phrases into your CV, which will end up in a digital trash bin without human eyes ever seeing it. Private sector jobs are asking for ten years' experience in the corporate world; nonprofits want nonprofit experience. A think-tank job I recently applied for had over one hundred applicants, and the writing test that I spent hours on was not even acknowledged. In the end I received a form letter stating how well I had done on a telephone interview that never happened, while explaining they had given the job to someone else.

I am one of the privileged ones -- I will eventually get the kind of job I am looking for. But many other women are at a disadvantage that they may never completely overcome. Immigrant women face additional challenges of language barriers and accreditation delays; lower-income women lack the networks and the education needed to sustain better-paying full-time work.

With Canada currently ranked 35th in the 2016 World Economic Forum's survey on gender equity, and a federal government committed to tackling the ongoing gender gap, now is the time to drive change in practical ways that will create measurable results.

working mothers

Next year's budget should be delivering targeted programs for women to reintegrate into the skilled work force after a family-related employment break. This is important to the future of Canada since it will not only support labour equity and pay equity for women but will mitigate the economic losses associated with Canada's aging labour force.

Reintegration centres such as the ones that have been developed in Germany could be established within the infrastructure of existing employment centres, and depending on availability, could be a mixture of government-operated centres and private employment agencies aided with government funding. Distance learning and online services could be provided to women unable to access the centres. Women could then be provided with job acquisition counselling, skills and training opportunities, workshops, and pathways to networking events. An online job bank could provide linkages between job-seekers and prospective employers.

Furthermore, the minister of employment should follow through on her mandate to amend the Canada Labour Code to allow employees to formally request flexible work hours (employer inflexibility currently being a key impediment for many women in the labour force). While the 2017 budget appears to commit to this flexibility for federal employees, we have a long way to go before flexible working hours become part of the normal working culture in Canada.

The schoolyard where my children are at 3:30 p.m. is filled with brilliant and accomplished women, many of whom would love to be working in their field but are lacking the structural support, the employer flexibility, and a pathway back to workplace. Let's make it easier for them to get back into the labour force, if they so choose. Canada's future depends on it.

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