Motherhood and Unemployment: Intersectional Experiences from Canada

By Nichols, Dr Leslie J. | Canadian Review of Social Policy, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Motherhood and Unemployment: Intersectional Experiences from Canada


Nichols, Dr Leslie J., Canadian Review of Social Policy


Introduction

When workers become unemployed in Canada, there is an expectation that they will be able to access unemployed workers' support because they have paid into the federal Employment Insurance (EI) program while employed. However, this is not the case for many workers since the policy change in 1996 from Unemployment Insurance (UI) to EI. This change included stricter rules and regulations, notably in relation to the number of hours worked during the previous 52 weeks that are required to obtain supports (MacDonald 2009a, 2009b). However, the policy change did not affect all workers in Canada to the same degree. Those most impacted by the changes are workers from lower socioeconomic levels-especially women, because of their traditional family role as mothers (McGregor 2004; Nichols, 2014a, 2014 b; Silver, Wilson, & Shields, 2004; Silver, Shields, Wilson, & Scholtz, 2005). The demands of motherhood make it more complicated for women to access and remain continuously in the labour market (Nichols 2014a, 2014b; Shields, Silver, & Wilson, 2006; Silver, Shields, Wilson, & Scholtz, 2005; Townson & Hayes, 2007).

The impacts of increasingly underfunded and deregulated childcare programs in Canada have yet to be fully assessed, but it is likely that they will deepen existing inequalities in the labour market (Mikkonen & Raphael, 2010). One potential effect is that women will become permanent losers in the workforce due to their traditional connection to child rearing. As Krahn et al. (2008) argue, a past employment record of marginal jobs can create barriers to accessing the primary labour market because of the common belief that the worker has unstable work habits. These barriers imply that to address the needs of their growing families, women will need to take on precarious employment with the potential threat of having to remain permanently in the secondary labour market.

Not everyone is impacted to the same degree by these challenges. Some workers experience more inequalities as a result of their varying intersecting identities related to gender, motherhood, marital status, socioeconomic status, age, race, and immigrant status. The interconnections among these identities must be considered in order to fully understand the barriers that women, especially mothers, face in the labour market. Based on interviews conducted with 26 unemployed women in two Canadian cities in 2013, this paper applies an intersectional analysis to explore these varying identities and their impacts on women's employment within existing social conditions and government policies. The data collected underline the failure of current government policies to support women's need for economic self-sufficiency and to rectify social and legal inequalities that marginalize women in the work force, pointing to a need for significant policy changes.

Women's Employment

Despite the relative lack of change in gender roles and the household division of labour, more women are working in Canada today than 35 years ago, although they often work in nonstandard part-time employment. In 2013, 58.3% of Canadian women and 67.6% of Canadian men who desired to work were employed (Statistics Canada 2014), compared to 41.9% of women and 72.7% of men in 1976 (Ferraro 2010). Despite this increase in women's employment, few women are able to obtain unemployment supports if they lose their employment (Townson & Hayes, 2007).

Dominant social-policy paradigms that suggest that men are the breadwinners and women are the child caregivers are reinforced in labour markets and influence the types of jobs women can hold (Peck, 1996). Women have historically only had access to jobs typically perceived as "female," such as teaching and care-related work (Gordon, Edwards, & Reich, 1982; Kershaw, 2004). Labour markets must therefore be seen as socially constructed and segmented in such a way that women are slotted into jobs in the secondary sector that are characterized by low wages and high insecurity (Krahn et al. …

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