Vivian Abdelmessih: Long-term economic recovery depends on empowering women's career development

By Vivian Abdelmessih
EVP & CRO, Canadian Banking
TD Bank Group

It's been a challenging year. 

Like many of us, I've spent most of the summer working from home, balancing career and family, while trying to filter out some of the COVID-19 news cycle. And like so many of us, finding that balance has been tough. Despite my best efforts, it's also becoming increasingly difficult for me not to read headlines about the pandemic and feel like the coverage is becoming more personal. As my own children returned to school this month, my focus has been on creating a positive environment, against the backdrop of uncertainty. 

In the beginning, the news cycle was dominated by stories about the spread of the virus and efforts to contain it, store shelves emptied of toilet paper, and the lockdowns and other disruptions to our lives that were needed to protect the health of our families and communities. 

But over the past few months, the narrative has changed. Data emerging on the economic crisis – which economists believe will be unlike anything we've seen since the Great Depression – is showing that the economic fallout is disproportionally affecting women, Black communities, and other underrepresented groups. 

Indeed, some economists are already referring to this sharp economic downturn as a "She-cession," and are warning it may reverse decades of hard-won labour force gains for women. What's more, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that women are at greater risk of job loss, poverty, food and housing insecurity, and domestic violence.

That's why it's critical, as we chart a course that will help our economy prepare for a post-pandemic world, that we ensure that we invest in supporting and developing the careers of women. Our economic recovery depends on it. 

The She-cession 

While the pandemic has created uncertainty for almost everyone, women make up a greater share of the workforce in industries that have been most affected by COVID-19, including hospitality, retail, and the non-profit sectors

Combine that with the reality that women still do more of the unpaid housework and caregiving, add in existing pay inequity issues coupled with childcare uncertainties and the unpredictable schoolyear ahead, and it should come as no surprise that some women are deciding to put their careers on hold to care for their families. 

According to Statistics Canada, as lockdowns began to ease in June, recovery of COVID-19 related employment losses were more advanced among men than among women. At the same time, the rate of Canadian women who either couldn't work more hours or who were able to work but could not find work, was much higher than among men. 

The same survey found a growing gap between the proportion of working women aged 25-54 who had children under 18, and who were working less than half their usual hours compared with their male counterparts (14.3% for women compared to 8.7% for men.) 

The She-cession is just as menacing in the United States, where the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate for adult women rose to about 15% in May from 3.1% in February. Unemployment rates for women of colour (16.4%) and Hispanic women (20.2%) were even higher. By comparison, the unemployment rate for adult men was 13%.

As a woman of Egyptian and Sudanese heritage—and as the daughter of a woman who was raised by a single mother—these headlines resonate. I know something of the untold struggles that are tied to the data playing out in homes across North America, and beyond.  

I'm also aware of the complex dynamics, inequities, and unconscious bias facing women of diverse backgrounds. I know that this kind of intersectionality (the interconnected nature of social categories like race, gender, and sexuality, among others) places greater pressure on women and can limit possibilities even well before the pandemic began.

Women in Leadership at TD

Last month, I led a virtual town hall as the new Chair of our Women in Leadership (WIL) program. About 1,500 of my TD colleagues, from across North America, joined the conversation focused on the challenges women are facing during these unprecedented times, how we as an organization are tackling them and exposing a key insight – these are shared experiences. 

The conversations during this town hall were nothing short of extraordinary and served as a listening exercise to help inform our WIL program going forward. We covered a lot of ground, but overwhelmingly, my colleagues said their biggest challenge was taking care of children while trying to do their jobs when typical childcare options were unavailable.  

According to Jennifer Robson, an associate professor of political management at Carleton University, Canadian moms earn 40% of the household income in Canada. Based on this figure, it becomes clear that recovering that lost earning power will be critical to creating any sustained economic recovery.

And there's more to the story. While much of the conversation around the She-cession has been focused on lower-income or lower skilled labour pools, the reality is that women from across all skill and income levels are being impacted. In the U.S., women are experiencing a slower job recovery than men in higher paid roles such as technology, financial operations, sciences and math, according to TD Chief Economist, Beata Caranci.

The bottom line is economic recovery just isn't possible without increased women's participation in the workforce. Even the Canadian Human Rights Commission is asking governments to ensure that social and economic recovery plans employ a "feminist approach." 

Organizations investing in the careers of women  

This is why it's so critical for organizations like TD to invest in the careers and the development of women, to not only ensure we don't lose the gains women have achieved, but to power our recovery going forward.  

I've often been the only woman, or visible minority (or both) in a room at work. It is undeniable that men, particularly white men, continue to hold the majority of the most senior, influential positions in many large organizations, including TD. And while the Bank's commitment to a goal of more than 40% representation of women in Canada at the VP level is a laudable goal we must continue to work towards a day when we see true equity for all women, including across differences of race and sexual orientation.

This is why it's fundamental that programs like WIL go beyond reaching out to women alone. We must ensure we are all committed to diversity and inclusion, and why our WIL strategy includes the WIL Allies program, which is an initiative designed to engage men from across the organization on gender equity, and diversity.  

We're taking the right steps. 

For women returning to the labour market after an extended period of absence, we sponsor programs such as the Rotman School of Management Back to Work program, and within TD we are working with our Human Resources team to improve the experiences of leaves for our colleagues, including increasing colleague awareness of available tools and resources, in addition to increasing awareness internally on the challenge of implicit bias towards women. 

At-home paid leaves of absence also matter, especially to keep employees engaged and to help prevent the further spread of COVID-19. This is why our employees can also rely on access to benefits that help them stay home when they need to care for the health of a family member without worry.  

Career development for women can't be about teaching them how to be successful. We don't need to correct women. We need to give women fair opportunities, especially now. 

We need to remove the barriers and biases that unfairly prevent women from succeeding, and we need to do it not just because it's the equitable thing to do, but because women will be critical to the recovery. 

Our future quite literally depends on it.

Vivian Abdelmessih

EVP & CRO, Canadian Banking

TD Bank Group