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Women's employment rates in Alberta return to levels not seen since the '80s

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Economist Armine Yalnizyan. Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

Remember all the hand-wringing back in 2018 and 2019 when unemployment for young men in Alberta hit 20 per cent?

"It is so stark: Young men left behind in Alberta's recovery amid 'male-dominated recession'" -- Financial Post

"Legions of young Alberta men are unemployed and feel ostracized. What could go wrong?" -- The Globe and Mail

"'It just feels pretty dire': What it's like for young Alberta men facing a 20% unemployment rate" -- CBC

Important question: so what are we hearing now that Alberta employment rates for women in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic are falling back to levels not seen since the mid-1980s?

Answer: Crickets.

"Hello Alberta," tweeted economist Armine Yalnizyan, who has argued persuasively that there will be no recovery from COVID-19 without a "she-covery," and no she-covery without child care.

"I was comparing which provinces women saw the most rollback of gains in employment equity due to the pandemic," she continued yesterday afternoon. "It's you guys. Women's employment rate in 2020 was back at the level it was in 1984."

PS, added the former chief economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, now an Atkinson Foundation Fellow studying the future of workers, not so long ago more Alberta women had paid work than anywhere in Canada.

This doesn't mean women in Alberta have the lowest employment rate in Canada, she explained. They still have the second-highest rate, "but they have seen the biggest rollback in employment rate in the country, and are now back at levels last seen in 1984."

Back in 2019, Alberta's then-new United Conservative Party premier, Jason Kenney, used high unemployment experienced by young men to ride a couple of his favourite hobbyhorses. He was "pushing Ottawa for tangible solutions, including a firm deadline for the completion of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and changes to the Fiscal Stabilization Program," The Globe and Mail said.

If you put aside the question of the market, he wasn't entirely off base with the suggestion more work in the fossil-fuel extraction sector, traditionally heavily dominated by men, would help address unemployment among young men in Alberta. It's well understood to be a male-dominated industry that paid far higher salaries than jobs requiring more education in which women predominated like health care and education.

So how's that different from what's happening now, in 2021?

Well, as we have seen in Alberta's recent budget and heard from the pronouncements of Kenney and his finance minister, Travis Toews, the UCP government not only doesn't seem very concerned about jobs for women, judging from their intention to attack public-sector jobs, they are outright hostile to them.

It is well understood that public-sector jobs -- thanks in large part to the prevalence of unionization in health care, education and government -- help narrow the gender wage gap. As two Parkland Institute researchers said in a blog post on gender pay disparities back in 2017, this happens "not by paying everyone more, but rather by paying women and men more equally.

"Taking age and education levels into account, women across the board in every age group, with and without post-secondary education, face less wage discrimination in the public sector than they do in the private," authors Ian Hussey and Emma Jackson wrote.

But in a jurisdiction where the economy is as heavily dominated by the fossil-fuel industry as in Alberta, attacking public-service employment -- whether through outright layoffs or by encouraging privatization and precarity -- means attacking both women's economic security and actual women's jobs.

Putting all of the province's eggs in the bitumen basket is the other side of the same coin, and dumb to boot given the developing realities of the market for fossil fuels, which no amount of climate-change denialism, even if you have a whole war room to do the denying, is going to change.

The UCP's discredited austerity policies, its hostility to unions and unionization, and its refusal to take serious measures to diversify Alberta's economy away from oil and gas, are not just bad economics, they amount to a war on women's work. And that's bad for men as well as women.

But it probably explains why there's so little concern being expressed in government circles about an economic trend that bodes no good for Alberta.

As for the silence of the media, well, they're understaffed and overworked covering Kenney's daily no-news news conferences at which he re-announces vaccination schedules and attacks Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Perhaps Yalnizyan's observation will wake them up.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

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