The arrival of the federal affordable child-care plan has meant a rise in women’s employment in Canada – a success we should celebrate. But, the way we work has changed over the past few years, mainly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people now work in remote and hybrid arrangements, and research has found that women who use these arrangements are often penalized in their careers.

As more women join the workforce, policies facilitating paid and unpaid work must ensure they are not just able to work, but also to thrive. These changes must be embedded in a constellation of employer and government policy interventions.

Despite early signs of progress, universal access to quality child care is not yet a reality – a chief reason being that child-care workers are woefully underpaid and undervalued, leading inadequate numbers of people to be attracted to the career. Without enough workers to provide child care for those who need it, women, who are expected to provide the majority of caregiving at home, may be prevented from pursuing full-time employment or accessing the kinds of positions that are professionally and financially rewarding.

At the same time that we are wrestling with supply-and-demand imbalances, the rise in remote work arrangements since the onset of the pandemic has provided opportunities for the retention in the workforce of women with caregiving responsibilities, as well as others who face barriers to working onsite. Indeed, women are more likely than men to use flexible work arrangements. But without access to child care or an equitable sharing of household labour, women continue to shoulder the bulk of care responsibilities while also working from home.

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This may lead to feelings of stress and to increased mental health issues as work-life boundaries dissolve. Research also shows that women are often stigmatized for taking remote work options because of biased perceptions that they are not fully dedicated to their jobs.

These issues call attention to the importance of public and organizational policies that not only support women in the workforce, but also help retain them and help them succeed. Ensuring affordable and high-quality child care and reducing the unequal division of household labour are both crucial to assuring women’s economic inclusion. As remote work becomes more commonplace, we also need to think about its place within the landscape of policies supporting unpaid and paid work.

Currently, employees in federally regulated industries who have more than six months of continuous employment have the right to request flexible work arrangements, including remote work, without fear of reprisal. However, managers have the right to refuse such requests if, among other reasons, they believe that remote work would be detrimental to its quality or quantity. This criterion is subjective and may lead to divergent interpretations. In fact, data from Statistics Canada shows that 90 per cent of remote workers perceive they are just as (or more) productive at home as in the office; and this is confirmed by studies documenting that remote work can increase productivity. To avoid bias against remote workers, organizations need to ensure they have specific guidelines and justifications for what constitutes a decline in quality of work, and not let preconceived notions about what makes a good employee encroach on evaluations.

One way employers can promote inclusive remote work policies would be to frame the policy as a human right, explaining to staff that there is a duty to accommodate a variety of groups, including persons with disabilities and those who are immunocompromised, along with those with elder-care or child-care responsibilities. Framing remote work as a human right that is available to all workers could help destigmatize those who are obligated to, or opt to, make use of flexible work arrangements.

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Government policy also has a crucial role to play in shaping the future of work. During the pandemic, the federal government experimented with several approaches to support safe working from home. For example, the Canadian Revenue Agency offered a “temporary flat rate method” of claiming home office expenses, wherein employers are not required to sign and certify Form T2200 (Declaration of Conditions of Employment) on behalf of their employees. This was introduced during COVID-19 to make claims more efficient and less burdensome on employers.

If people continue working remotely in high numbers, the government may consider making permanent a version of the flat rate method. Many Canadians also struggle to afford high-speed internet access at home, which rules out remote work as an option for many low-income and rural families. The federal government can continue building on its innovative Connecting Families initiative through a commitment to ensuring universal internet access across the country, and thus expanding access to remote work opportunities.

Many have touted the potential for remote work to solve the challenges of gender inequality in employment. However, if remote working policies are not embedded in a constellation of other employer and government policy interventions, progress towards equality will continue to be slow and uneven. Solutions that address how the way we work is changing – and that pay attention to how people of different groups are affected by these transformations – will help Canada use the disruptions of the pandemic to create a more equitable society in the future.

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