The pandemic changed how we work. Now, mothers want it to stay that way

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Brianna Shereck was at odds between getting ahead in her career and caring for her two pre-school aged children. 

“If you’ve ever had kids in daycare, you’re familiar that they get sick all of the time,” said Shereck. In 2019, she took five weeks away from her job in Victoria’s tourism industry to look after her kids.

Despite the ease with which she said she could fulfil her role as marketing co-ordinator from home, Shereck said her company barred her from working remotely. She was let go following the pandemic’s blow to Victoria’s tourism industry. Today, she works entirely remotely for a Saskatoon-based retirement firm. 

Shereck said neither she nor her husband, who works remotely in tech, could go back to traditional work while they have young children.

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Pandemic introduced positive changes 

Before the pandemic, she said there was “unspoken confusion” if she needed to work from home for the sake of her children. Now, Shereck said there’s a better understanding about the lack of child-care options and the need to work remotely. 

“I feel like there’s been a massive social shift. People understand that you also have a family.” 

The number of Canadians working exclusively from home fell from almost 25 per cent at the beginning of 2022 to nearly 17 per cent in August, according to that month’s Statistics Canada labour force survey

In August 2020, a third of the Canadian workforce was concerned about returning to normal working conditions, according to StatsCan — of that number, half were mothers whose youngest children were younger than six. 

I feel like there’s been a massive social shift. People understand that you also have a family.– Brianna Shereck, on how work has changed for mothers since the pandemic

As many Canadian workplaces mandate their employees to return to the office, Odette Hutchings, chief operating officer for the Women in Capital Markets (WCM) network, said they shouldn’t miss an unprecedented opportunity to make the inclusion of new mothers in the workforce a legacy of the pandemic. 

WCM’s The Future of Work in Finance Report, conducted throughout February and March, found that work flexibility was a critical need for those caring for children under six years old. Sixty-seven per cent of 417 surveyed finance workers — 82 per cent of whom were women contacted through WCM’s online network — said they found remote work allowed them to have flexibility without sacrificing productivity. 

“Working from home helps women balance those responsibilities while still being able to perform their job at the same level,” said Hutchings. “We’re really at this golden opportunity to make workplaces more inclusive, more flexible and more welcoming to all kinds of people.” 

A woman holds a child while sitting at a desk and working at a laptop computer.
In August 2020, a third of the Canadian workforce was concerned about returning to normal working conditions, according to Statistics Canada. Of that number, half were mothers whose youngest children were younger than six. (Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

Having young kids makes return to work difficult

A Sept. 15 study from Canadian economics research organization the C.D. Howe Institute titled Uneven Odds: Men, Women and the Obstacles to Getting Back to Work with Kids, showed that having young children made the search for employment more difficult for mothers than fathers.

 Women with two-year-old children were six per cent less likely to reenter the workforce than those with kids seven and older. For men, the age of their children was largely irrelevant to their reentry into the workforce.

Tiffany Cowper, a Victoria mother on maternity leave until November 2023, is worried about returning to work given the extra responsibility she’s assumed for her three step children and her newborn.

“Before the pandemic hit, your kids are used to only having this percentage of access to you. When the pandemic hit, it didn’t increase a little bit — I was with them all day, everyday,” said Cowper, referring to the time she spent helping the kids with remote school and nightly homemade dinners. 

If we’re going to be spending more on me going into the office, in addition to full-time daycare, we might be putting out more than we’re getting … At that point, is it worth it?– Tiffany Cowper, on the rising cost of living making returning to the office more expensive 

What’s more, the rising cost of living in Victoria could make returning to work more expensive than it’s worth for her family of five.

The cost of food, shelter, transportation and other expenses included in Canada’s consumer price index increased seven per cent in August over last year, according to StatsCan

“If we’re going to be spending more on me going into the office, in addition to full-time daycare, we might be putting out more than we’re getting or breaking even. It seems to cost time and money just to go back to work. At that point, is it worth it?” asked Cowper. “It’s a really hard position to be in.”

Although her office doesn’t endorse remote work, Cowper said being able to work from home would be “the absolute best case scenario.”

A smiling woman sits for a photo on a set of steps outside a building.
Odette Hutchings, chief operating officer of Women in Capital Markets, said now is a critical time to enshrine working norms made throughout the pandemic for the benefit of working mothers. (Brittany Gawley)

Companies should model shift 

According to Hutchings, the first step to ensuring mothers are included in the workforce is to avoid remote or hybrid work options that are tied to complex permission procedures.

“If these flexible work arrangements are so complicated to access that employees aren’t making use of them, then obviously that’s not useful,” she said. 

WATCH | The need for flexibility in return-to-office plans:

Workers want flexibility with return-to-office plans

With pandemic restrictions easing across Canada, companies are preparing to welcome employees back into the office. But many are pushing back and asking for flexible work arrangements, while others are looking forward to going into the office again.

Parental leave should also be equalized for both caretakers, said Hutchings, noting that when mothers have access to longer parental leave benefits than fathers, it implies that women are expected to take time off at a higher rate than men.

For organizations to truly embrace the shift, company leadership needs to not only enforce equal use of parental leave and flexible or remote work options, but model its use themselves, she said. 

“It’s not enough to say [mothers] can access flexible work, meanwhile all of the leadership are going in five days a week.”

Likewise, Hutchings said management needs to limit the amount of correspondence that occurs after work hours, when caregivers are typically occupied with home life. 

“We have an opportunity to make a better working life for all people going forward,” said Hutchings. “But if we don’t take the opportunity now, we could really see that slip away from us.”

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