Women in the digital workforce
The post-pandemic economic recovery will depend on equality for women
The work world has been permanently transformed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Zoom meetings are the new norm, even now that pandemic restrictions have been lifted. Employers are increasingly adopting artificial intelligence programs for many work tasks that humans once did. But against this backdrop there are also labour shortages in many sectors. The unemployment-to-job vacancy ratio is at a historic low across Canada, partly because baby boomers who are close to retirement age have left the workforce, but not enough younger people are coming in behind them.
Nada Basir, a professor at the Conrad School of Entrepreneurship and Business, says there is an aspect to this conundrum that is rarely talked about: providing opportunities for women, particularly immigrant and racialized women, to get jobs or create new businesses amid this changing economy.
“We can grow the economy, we can recover, but we will need better participation and more inclusive environments,” Basir says.
Basir’s background in medical biotechnology and had previously worked in the pharmaceutical industry, but she switched tracks as she embarked on a PhD program in business administration.
She is from Libya and has family there, so during the Arab Spring protests that culminated in the end of the oppressive Muammar Gaddafi regime, she was involved in building a non-profit organization to help people in her native country. She became fascinated by the power of the grassroots social movements rapidly gaining ground there. “I switched my thesis topic and ended up writing about social innovation and the women’s rights movement in Libya,” Basir says.
Today, she is one of a group of interdisciplinary researchers at Waterloo focusing on women, work and the economy. The researchers, including political science professor Bessma Momani and economics professor Ana Ferrer, are involved in various projects related to how to integrate immigrant and racialized women into the rapidly changing world of work. The projects included a recent report on the Digital Transformation of Work, led by Momani.
Basir says many women were relieved when the global pandemic forced a work-from-home trend. Women have busy lives, so not having to commute to work has been a relief for many of them. But it can be a double-edged sword, because women who work from home tend to take on more domestic duties.
“The switch to more digital workplaces is not easy for everyone. This is where we really need to ask the questions: Who does this benefit? Who does it leave behind and what can we do to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society have a chance?" Basir says.
Immigrant women also tended to be employed in service sector parts of the economy, such as restaurants and retail stores, that were particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. Some of those jobs didn’t come back. Yet the lack of digital literacy limits their ability to take advantage of the exciting new era of digitalization. “The reality is that many times it's women and especially racialized women, immigrant women, indigenous women, who end up missing out,” Basir says.
Basir says the key is ensuring that women get training in digital skills wherever possible, and to help them start their own businesses if they are entrepreneurially minded.
There are many more barriers for women, particularly immigrant women, who are wanting to start businesses, Basir says. “It's more difficult for them to access capital, they have smaller networks and tend to focus on businesses that are not as high-scaling ventures compared to men,” she says.
“As much as we want to believe that entrepreneurship is a gender-neutral phenomenon that is empowering and accessible to everyone, it isn’t. There isn't equality in this area at all and it really should be about equal opportunity,” Basir adds.
Ensuring that women have these opportunities is important to the economy, but Basir says it is also essential to the fabric of society. “You risk creating a social fabric that is based on so much more inequality when you don't provide these opportunities,” she says.
“I just believe that everyone should have a fair chance,” Basir says. “That's what drives me. That's the fire in my belly.”
The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land granted to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is co-ordinated within the Office of Indigenous Relations.