Tapping into a "Motherload" of Opportunity

December 12, 2016
Denise Mullen

As a small open economy in a slow-growth world, British Columbia has few domestic levers to maintain a competitive edge. One way the province may be able to secure a stronger foothold on the future is to provide more opportunities for skilled individuals to stay engaged in paid work. When people opt out of the labour force, it results in missed opportunities for families, businesses and the economy as a whole.

Women, particularly in the child-rearing years of 20-49 years, are less active than their male peers in the workforce. This particular group of sub-optimally engaged women exemplify “missed opportunity.” Figure 1 shows the labour force participation rates of BC women and men aged 20 to 49 between 1976 and 2015. While the gap fluctuated between seven and 11 points over the past 15 years, female labour force participation looks to be stuck just below the 80% mark, about nine percentage points below the rate for men.[1] The correlation between child-rearing and labour force participation is not coincidental. When surveyed, women across Canada cite family obligations, including child care, as the principal reason for leaving or reducing their participation in the workforce.[2]

Figure 1: BC Labour Force Participation Rates,
Men and Women Aged 20 to 49, 1976 to 2015

Foregoing paid work is not an easy choice for most women or their families. The economy also loses out when talented people step away from the labour market. With more women now obtaining post-secondary credentials than men,[3] mothers with dependent children should be “Ms. Opportunity” — not “missed opportunity.” Greater labour force participation by mothers would benefit the economy in several ways – notably, by expanding gross domestic product, augmenting the pool of skills available to employers, and boosting government tax revenues. This begs the question: what can be done to improve women’s labour force attachment? One obvious answer—expanding access to quality child care.[4]

Access to child care is not just a personal concern, it’s also a business and human capital issue. Some estimates suggest that, with improved access to quality child care, increased maternal labour supply could yield $450 million per year in private employment income and generate a positive projected return to BC taxpayers.

Recalibrating the balance between men and women in paid and un-paid[5] work (child care) would increase women’s financial independence and purchasing power, enable more women to pursue career and education goals, and lift lifetime earnings.[6] Increasing the availability of child care would help to narrow the labour force participation rate gap between women and men.[7] Any boost to labour supply, particularly in light of current demographic trends, counts as a positive outcome. In a slow-growth world, even smallish economic gains are worth pursuing.

Publicly-funded, universal child care is not the only choice. Partnerships among companies, or between companies and public-non/profit organizations, are another option. Some companies already offer their own child care services—please see our report for details, Tapping a “Motherload” of Opportunity: How BC Can Gain from More Accessible Childcare.

Gender equity is an important consideration for Canadian businesses as “partner[s] in building the kind of economy Canada needs … by supporting economic growth through partnerships or investments in … underemployed workers ...”[8] Focusing on ways to support “Ms. Opportunity”— instead of missed opportunity —through the provision of accessible child care would increase the retention of female talent and is one pathway for creating a more productive economy.

[1] Table 282-0002 Labour force survey estimates (LFS), by sex and detailed age group, annual.

[2] Table 282-0218 Labour force survey estimates (LFS), reason for not looking for work, by sex and age group, unadjusted for seasonality, monthly.

[3] Table 282-0004 Labour force survey estimates (LFS), by educational attainment, sex and age group, annual.

[4] This blog does not define or address the definition of “quality of care.” But quality is an important aspect of child care and needs further research.

[5] In North America, women do 60-70% of unpaid care work. McKinsey Global Institute, How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth (2015) and http://www.genderwork.ca/gwd/introduction/.

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