Canada faces 'economic crisis' if gender employment divide remains

TORONTO - Job prospects for women are looking increasingly bleak as the so-called fourth industrial revolution puts female-dominated industries at imminent risk.

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In Canada, where the traditional gender employment divide persists, that could mean a big hit to the economy given that almost half of the Canadian labour force is comprised of women.

"If we can't equip 50 per cent of our workforce with some of the foundational skills for where much of the market growth is going, we will be in a real economic crisis," Jane Wilson, the women's services director at Community MicroSkills Development Centre, said in a recent interview.

Canada will lack talented people to fill empty job openings, she said, and will be forced to fund social services for women missing the in-demand skills who find themselves unemployed.

Over the next four years, technological advances, like robotics and 3D printing, are expected to shift the employment landscape in a way that most adversely impacts traditionally female industries, according to a recent future jobs report from the World Economic Forum.

Nearly 4.8 million office and administrative jobs, for example, will disappear globally by 2020. Currently, women fill more than half of those roles around the world.

Meanwhile, some male-dominated industries, like architecture and engineering, stand to gain hundreds of thousands of jobs over the same time period.

Overall, women can expect to lose more than five jobs for each one gained, the report found, while men will lose about three jobs for every new position created.

That scenario is likely to play out in Canada, where the employment landscape reflects these historical gender divides, said Chanel Grenaway, the director of economic development for the Canadian Women's Foundation.

"Sadly, that hasn't changed," she said.

Many Canadian women are employed in the office and administrative jobs the report projects are largely disappearing. Women make up 94 per cent or more of all medical and office administrative assistants, receptionists, court reporters, medical transcriptionists and related occupations in Canada, according to Catalyst, a non-profit organization working to improve workplace inclusion for women.

In the meantime, male-dominated vocations - architecture, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, manufacturing and production - will grow, says the World Economic Forum.

In those fields, statistics on the limited female participation can be misleading, Wilson says.

Last year, for example, StatCan figures indicated about 817,000 women worked in the goods-producing sector in industries like agriculture and construction. But those numbers don't tell the whole story, said Wilson.

"When you get down to who's actually an apprentice and completing apprenticeships, that's where the numbers take a deep dive," she said.

In 2011, women held 14 per cent of registered apprenticeships in the country, predominantly working as hair stylists or cooks. Two per cent or less of all carpentry, plumbing and heavy equipment apprentices that year were female.

In those industries, women's work is often confined to more traditionally female roles, like administration, marketing or communications, she said.

Despite efforts to move more women into those in-demand professions and trades, "we haven't seen a big shift in the dial," said Grenaway.

Both Grenaway and Wilson advocate for more investment for programs geared to helping women train for and transition into such career paths - particularly, programs that focus on helping women overcome unique barriers to employment, like access to affordable childcare.

Otherwise, Canada will be left lacking a talented workforce to fill future job openings.

"There's a downside as far as the economy goes whichever way you look at it if we don't take a harder look at the magnitude of effort and investment that will be needed to turn around the ship ... so that women are heading in droves towards these jobs," Wilson said.


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