The Facts: Women and Pandemics

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the world, and unprecedented impacts were felt both in Canada and globally. More than two years later, the impacts of the pandemic continue to unfold, in spite of widespread vaccination.

Soon after the pandemic began, it became clear that it would disproportionately impact women, girls, and gender-diverse people. “Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex,” said a United Nations policy brief. “With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the UN, “even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back.”

The Canadian Human Rights Commission echoed this statement with its own, saying: “These disproportionate impacts could have long-term and far reaching consequences. If we are to restore momentum in our efforts to bring about gender equality in Canada, social and economic recovery efforts must take a feminist approach.”

The pandemic circumstances intensified inequalities related to gender, and other factors, such as economic status, race, culture, language, and other intersecting elements of our identities. It is important to understand the intersectional gendered implications of the pandemic, especially in the areas of gender-based violence, economic security, girls’ empowerment, and inclusive leadership.

Frequently asked questions about women and the COVID-19 pandemic

Peoples’ experiences of pandemics are grounded in longstanding social inequalities that impact all of us, every single day.

Epidemiological analysis on gender and COVID-19 infection, recovery, and death rates is an ongoing process. According to the Government of Canada, more women have been diagnosed with COVID-19 than men. This could be due to the high number of women living in a nursing homes and seniors’ residences. A high number of COVID-19 deaths have been in nursing homes.

More women than men have been diagnosed with COVID-19 following vaccination, which could be due to the high ratio of women who work on the front lines of health services, caregiving, cleaning, and other essential roles where workers are at high risk of contracting the virus.

The experience of long COVID – symptoms more than 12 weeks after diagnosis – is disproportionately impacting women. Research estimates that 60-80 per cent of women in their middle years who received a COVID-19 diagnosis are impacted by long COVID. In a Canadian survey of over 1,000 people with long COVID, more than 87 per cent identified as women. The experience of long COVID can impact women’s ability to work, threatening their career advancement and earning potential.

When it comes to the isolation measures imposed to prevent the spread of the virus, four key gendered impacts that emerged for women were:

  • Increased risk of gender-based violence (See “Why is the pandemic linked to increased gender-based violence?”)
  • More economic stress (See “How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted women economically in Canada?”)
  • Increased burden of caregiving and housework
  • Reduced access to support services

Women and girls who face intersecting barriers and discrimination may have experienced additional challenges related to the pandemic. These communities include:

First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities

Canada’s history of colonialism means that many Indigenous communities experience barriers to health and safety, including overcrowding, isolation, declining infrastructure, and limited Internet access. Indigenous women and girls also face a higher risk of gender-based violence, which may have been exacerbated by isolation measures. In one survey, Indigenous participants were twice as likely as non-Indigenous participants to indicate being concerned about violence in the home, and Indigenous women reported more concern than Indigenous men.

A 2022 Canadian Women’s Foundation report indicated that Indigenous youth reported high rates of feeling depressed (78 per cent), and anxious (73 per cent) due to the pandemic. Many (74 per cent) said their mental health worsened during the pandemic. Many Indigenous youth have also experienced barriers when accessing support, including a lack of culturally appropriate resources (39 per cent) and long wait times (64 per cent).

East Asian communities

With the spread of the COVID-19 virus, people in Canada’s East Asian communities began experiencing more acts of racism. Reports of anti-Asian racism continued to rise throughout the pandemic, and in some cases increased dramatically. Approximately 66% of the reports of anti-Asian racism were filed by Asian women.

Black communities
Canada has limited tracking of race or ethnicity as part of its COVID-19 data collection. But there are reports that indicate Black people have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

A Toronto report found that Black people and other people of colour made up 83 per cent of COVID-19 cases, despite making up 13 per cent of the city’s population. Statistics Canada data indicated that the COVID-19 mortality rate for Black people was 2.2 times higher than non-racialized and non-Indigenous populations.

Racialized women

Racialized communities experienced a higher rate of COVID diagnosis due to inequitable living and working conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19, such as lower incomes, precarious employment, overcrowded housing, and limited access to health and social services. Mental health challenges rose as a result of these impacts, yet these communities faced barriers to accessing services. The mental health agency Across Boundaries gave out more than 300 phones to racialized and newcomer Canadians who could not access online services during the pandemic.

Immigrant women

Immigrant women were among the hardest hit at the beginning of the pandemic, due to their concentration in service and accommodation industry work, as well as minimum wage and precarious jobs. Many continued working in jobs where there was higher risk of contracting the virus. There were rebounds in employment among recent immigrant women and racialized women in 2021.

Women living with disabilities

Women with disabilities may have experienced increased risk of contracting COVID-19 due to, for example, an inability to practice social distancing because of dependence on caregivers. There may have also been more barriers to practicing hygiene recommended prevention measures.

“As the largest group forced to subsist on welfare benefits that fall far below the poverty line, people with disabilities have been largely forgotten and ignored in the pandemic response,” says the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ report Bumpy Ride: Tracking Women’s Economic Recovery Amid the Pandemic.

Senior and elderly women

Multiple outbreaks of COVID-19 at long-term care homes in Canada highlighted systemic gaps that senior and elderly women may face in such facilities, particularly related to adequate staffing and oversight.

There was significant concern among Canadians about both the quality (79 per cent) and safety (77 per cent) of our long-term health facilities, suggested the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s National Opinion Survey: Public Concern about COVID-19’s Impact on Women, July 2020. Concern was particularly high in Ontario, and 71 per cent were concerned about family members in long-term care facilities as they were at the time of the survey.

  • 91% agreed that standards and oversight of long-term care facilities in Canada must be improved as soon as possible
  • 85% agreed that we need to prioritize funding for long-term care in Canada.
  • 84% agreed that we need a complete overhaul of long-term care.

The digital divide and other barriers to online services and information

Increased reliance on digital resources during the pandemic left some women and girls behind. Access to technology and digital resources has been important not only for updates about the virus, isolation measures, and how to access government aid, but it also became a necessity for remote working and learning.

  • There remains a digital divide for those living in rural and remote areas of Canada, where communities have less reliable Internet and cellular service.
  • Population groups that registered below the average level of Internet access (92%) included people aged 75-plus, people with a disability, Indigenous people, and those not employed.
  • People living on a low income may not have personal access to computers or mobile devices, particularly when multiple household members all need access at the same time for work and school. Those who previously relied on public resources like libraries for digital access faced barriers to accessing those resources during the pandemic.
In August 2020, the Canadian Women’s Foundation released the results of a national opinion poll highlighting public concern over the social and economic fallout of COVID-19 on women. The poll indicated that:
  • Sixty per cent of Canadians wanted to see government recovery plans specifically address the unique impacts of the pandemic on women (70 per cent of women, 49 per cent of men). To that end, the Foundation has developed a series of Resetting Normal reports containing recommendations for building a gender-equal Canada in pandemic recovery efforts.
  • 71 per cent were concerned that women were at higher risk of experiencing violence due to home isolation during the pandemic.
  • 63 per cent were concerned that women faced more exposure to COVID-19 given their representation in high-risk service and care industries (including grocery stores, nursing, personal support work).
  • 59 per cent were concerned that women in Canada were at higher risk than men of losing their jobs due to the impact of COVID-19 on the economy.

There was also significant concern about both the quality (79 per cent) and safety (77 per cent) of our long-term health facilities, particularly in Ontario, and 71 per cent were concerned about family members in long-term care facilities. It’s been reported that women make up two-thirds of residents in nursing homes.

  • 91 per cent of Canadians agreed that standards and oversight of long-term care facilities in Canada must be improved as soon as possible.
  • 85 per cent agreed that we need to prioritize funding for long-term care in Canada.
  • 84 per cent agreed that we need a complete overhaul of long-term care.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been linked to spikes in domestic violence reports and crisis calls in various countries, including Canada.  This echoes what has happened in past disease outbreaks.

Rates of gender-based violence were high in Canada, even before the pandemic: on average, every six days, a woman is killed by her intimate partner.

During the pandemic, thousands of women, girls, and trans and non-binary people faced a heightened risk of violence at home with COVID-19 isolation measures, whether it took the form of emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

Where risk factors of gender-based violence at home already existed, like a sense of control, possessive jealousy, and misogynistic attitudes, various pandemic-related stressors could become triggers, including:

  • job losses and reduced income
  • food insecurity
  • fears about contracting the virus
  • exacerbated mental health issues
  • disrupted family routines, services, and resources

Quarantines and social isolation meant that abusers and those they harm were in close proximity around the clock and other people weren’t around to see the signs of violence and intervene. When the pandemic began, one in 10 women was very or extremely concerned about the possibility of violence in the home, suggested a Statistics Canada survey about COVID-19.

Of the 557 facilities across Canada housing survivors of domestic violence, 49 per cent indicated they received an increase in crisis calls, and 53 per cent indicated they saw an increased demand for support during the pandemic. Data from 17 police forces across the country showed a 12 per cent increase in domestic violence related calls from March-June 2020 compared to 2019. Violence also increased in severity, with more cases involving strangulation, stabbing, and firearms. An increase in femicide has been linked to the pandemic.

The necessary pandemic social restrictions made it more difficult for people experiencing abuse or violence to access services from shelters, sexual assault centres, and other community supports. These services continued to operate while facing many new challenges and increased operating costs. Shelters have struggled during the pandemic, due to chronic underfunding, particularly in rural areas, Indigenous communities, the Prairies and the North. Even when women could reach out for help, the lack of capacity has meant many were turned away. For example, the YWCA Regina was forced to turn away 941 women and 100 children from January to April 2022 alone.

To help address higher barriers to reaching out for help,  the Canadian Women’s Foundation launched the Signal for Help, a simple one-handed sign someone can use on a video call. It can help a person silently show they need help and want someone to check in with them in a safe way. Learn more about the signal and how you can respond if you see it or think that someone may be at risk of abuse.

Women remain highly concentrated in professional roles that put them on the front lines of both health care and jobs considered essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The three industries with the highest ratio of women versus men in Canada are health care and social assistance (82.4 per cent), educational services (69.3 per cent), and accommodation and food services (58.5 per cent), reports Statistics Canada. In 2015, “around 56 per cent of women were employed in occupations involving the “5 Cs’: caring, clerical, catering, cashiering and cleaning.”

Women health-care workers — including doctors, nurses, and paid caregivers — did not have the privilege of isolating at home because we have depended on them to deliver care. The vast majority of those in the following health-care roles are women: nurses, medical lab technicians, respiratory therapists, and personal support workers. Women who work as cleaners, cashiers, and food-service workers also continued to play key roles in serving the public at grocery stores, drug stores, pharmacies, and other essential businesses and services that remained open during the pandemic.

It has also been reported that there is gender bias in the design of personal protective equipment. While 70 per cent of health-care workers and 90 per cent of nurses are women globally, personal protective equipment is designed to fit European men. Women, who have different body and face sizes and shapes, are left with ill-fitting and less effective equipment. Racialized women may have additional challenges finding equipment that fits their hair or headwear. One U.K. survey found that only 30 per cent of women in health care felt safe doing their jobs. Overall, many women have described the lack of suitable protective equipment has made them feel “expendable”.

The impacts of the pandemic on women’s workforce participation, earning potential and career advancement have been unprecedented, and continue to unfold. In a matter of months, the crisis reduced women’s workforce participation to its lowest level in three decades.

Given that women are concentrated in the sectors and industries hardest hit by isolation measures, a higher proportion of women than men lost their jobs in the first and second waves of the pandemic.

Women accounted for 63% of the 1 million jobs lost as of March 2020, and 70% of losses by workers aged 25 to 54. As construction and manufacturing shut down in April, a sharp increase in men’s unemployment narrowed, but did not close the gender gap in employment loss. At the end of July 2020, in all age groups, the recovery among men remained more advanced.

Closures of schools and daycares shifted the burden of caregiving, and one third of women in Canada considered leaving their jobs to better manage childcare and other domestic work, indicated a national poll in September 2020.

Women had recouped roughly half of February-April employment losses (53.7%), and those aged 25–54 saw the largest gains. Women’s job growth has been mostly in part-time work, regaining less than one-third of full-time job losses (31.0%) by July’s end. A summer boost in part-time work in hard-hit industries such as retail and food services spurred employment among low wage women workers, but their rate of recovery continued to be slower than that of higher paid employees, lagging behind by more than 15 percentage points (81.8% vs. 97.4%). In December 2020, women’s employment was still set back by 20 years, with employment rates equal to that of 2000.

Single-parent mothers were more likely than mothers in two-parent families to have experienced job loss or reduced hours: more than a third (37.6%) compared to just over one quarter (25.7%) respectively, February to April 2020. In April, 202,000 single mothers were in the paid labour market, and another 122,000 were facing significant obstacles to employment, including access to childcare. By June, single-parent mothers had recovered only 23% of their hours, and those with kids under the age of six had recouped only 19.6% of pandemic employment losses.

Due to travel shutdowns, layoffs hit women working as flight attendants, cooks, servers, and cleaners in travel and hospitality. As stores closed or reduced hours, there were cutbacks for retail workers, many of whom are also women. Cutbacks continue to affect many women, as employment in these sectors in December 2021 was still down 11 per cent from December 2019; 60 per cent of the cutbacks were women.

Women also make up the majority of Canada’s minimum-wage workers and part-time workers. These positions are precarious at the best of times, and were more likely to lose hours during the pandemic. 58 per cent of low-wage working women lost hours between February and April 2020, compared to one per cent of high-wage workers ($48 or more/ hour).

The pandemic intensified economic barriers women already faced throughout Canada, and research suggests that, long term, pandemics can take a higher toll on women’s incomes than men’s.

Poverty in Canada is already gendered. Women make up 60 per cent of those in Canada who are economically “struggling”, meaning that they report difficulty covering basic expenses and may need pay day loans or food banks to get by.

The COVID-19 pandemic meant new challenges to delivering support services for those who are struggling, such as food banks that can’t meet demand, and closures of public services including schools, community centres, and libraries. In 2022, demand continues to remain at a peak with, for the first time, food banks having more new clients than existing clients in the past year.

Women in leadership positions have taken powerful and visible roles in the response to COVID-19 in Canada and internationally. Some of them, such as Canada’s 10 chief medical officers, quickly became household names.

At the same time, there were many women leaders who didn’t make headlines, for their work on the front lines of the COVID-19 response, making difficult decisions and taking action, including nurses, community-service providers, elder-care workers, and store clerks. These essential roles are often carried out by diverse women, and they have served in practical leadership roles in our neighbourhoods and communities, at risk to themselves and their families.

Although women remain under-represented in formal leadership roles in Canada, it’s not surprising that women’s leadership in Canada’s response to COVID-19 has been applauded. There is significant research to suggest that inclusive leadership leads to greater success; both gender and racial diversity are correlated with stronger business performance.

There are many reasons why women’s leadership through the pandemic has the potential to blaze new trails:

  • The emergence of diverse role models, particularly in the STEM arena, can motivate other women and girls to pursue these roles.
  • More diversity in leadership helps to break down stereotypes about who and what makes a good leader.
  • When more diverse women are involved decision-making processes, they’re in a position to bring a stronger gender lens to the process.
Surveys conducted at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic suggested that women in Canada were carrying a bigger burden of worry about the situation than men.

Forty-nine per cent of women reported feeling “very worried” about the outbreak, compared to 33 per cent of men, indicated a poll by Abacus Data. The data also showed that men were less likely to follow the advice of public health officials around staying home and social distancing.

Seventy-five per cent of female respondents were afraid of a family member contracting the virus, compared to 64 per cent of men, suggested an opinion survey by Leger.

An April 2020 survey by Vanier Institute of the Family suggested that more women than men reported feeling anxious or nervous very often or often due to the pandemic, and that more women than men reported difficulty sleeping very often or often since the beginning of the pandemic.

More than one year into the pandemic, this trend continued according to a survey by Léger, where more women (29 per cent) than men (20 per cent) reported moderate to severe anxiety. Anxiety symptoms were even more drastic for women with young children (37 per cent) compared to men with young children (24 per cent). Women (35 per cent) were also less likely than men (48 per cent) to report having good mental health.

The mental health of racialized women suffered significantly during the pandemic, indicated a Toronto study. Of the survey participants, 68 per cent experienced anxiety, and 72 per cent experienced exhaustion and burnout.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation’s Mother Rising poll, released in both May 2021 and May 2022, indicated that mothers’ and caregivers’ mental health continues to be disproportionately impacted. Almost half of moms (48%) in 2022 said they are reaching their breaking point, compared with 46% of moms in 2021. A significantly higher percentage of moms are concerned about their physical health in 2022 (67%) than in 2021 (55%). Three in five moms are concerned about their emotional well-being (67%) and their mental health (62%). Moms continue to be significantly more likely than dads to feel anxious and sad.

When the pandemic started, the Foundation launched the Tireless Together Fund: a national emergency fund to provide critical support to women and girls through the COVID-19 crisis.

We also surveyed service providers at women’s and equality-seeking organizations throughout Canada to find out how they were being impacted and what supports were needed.

Given that many women-serving organizations have faced higher costs and higher demand during the pandemic, the Foundation has worked with the federal government to help distribute millions of dollars in emergency government pandemic-relief funding. As of September 2022, the Foundation has moved more than $93 million in emergency grants to gender-based violence prevention and intervention programs, serving an estimated four million people in every region of the country.

The Foundation has produced a series of five Resetting Normal reports, which offer policy-makers a roadmap to pandemic recovery that puts gender equality at the centre.

We launched the Signal for Help and Signal for Help Responder Campaign in response to the increased risk of gender-based violence during the pandemic.

Last updated: October 2022