International Women’s Day

Social security organizations are key to advancing gender equity

International Women’s Day

Social security organizations are key to advancing gender equity

Interview with Kristen Underwood, Director General, Seniors and Pensions Policy Secretariat, Employment and Social Development Canada, in connection with the International Women’s Day on 8 March 2022. 

Kristen Underwood portrait

How do you see the role of social security in promoting gender equality and empowering women in society?

Throughout my career in the public service, I learnt the importance of building social security systems on the principle of equality and equity for all members of society. There must be non-discriminatory and social inclusion safeguards in place to protect vulnerable groups such as women. Improving income security and health protection contributes to the prevention and reduction of poverty and inequality, and the promotion of social inclusion and human dignity.

One key approach of the Government of Canada is to integrate gender considerations when developing policies and programmes by using “Gender-Based Analysis”, which is an analytical process used to assess the potential impacts of government policies and programmes on women. To make further progress, Canada applies a “Gender-Based Analysis Plus”, which includes other factors such as age, education, language, geography, culture, income, sexual orientation, job status, and so on. This helps policy makers recognize that an individual’s experience is affected by a number of factors and that equal opportunities does not necessarily mean equal results. Such analysis provides an understanding of how gender and its relationship with race, ethnicity, culture, class, age, disability and other factors produce different outcomes for different people.

Ensuring that gender equity is a core objective and integrated into policy development processes plays a vital role in the economic empowerment of women. 

Have you seen changes in gender equality since the outbreak of the pandemic and, in your view, what role has social security played to reduce the economic and social impact of the pandemic on women?

The COVID-19 pandemic amplified existing inequalities and brought unprecedented challenges around the world. Women have been disproportionately impacted by labour force disruptions and their labour force participation rate was reduced to its lowest level in three decades. Women accounted for much of the workforce in some of the hardest‑hit industries, resulting in higher rates of job losses in comparison to men. Moreover, women are more likely to hold precarious or part time jobs with increased risk of income reductions or unemployment and disproportionately took on unpaid caregiver roles, affecting their earnings and saving potential. Among seniors, there are more elderly women living alone on low incomes putting them at higher risk of economic insecurity.

Social security has played an essential role in reducing the economic and social impact of the pandemic on women. The Government of Canada implemented a number of financial support measures to help the most vulnerable workers affected by the pandemic, including those who suffered a job loss, were sick or had to self-isolate, or had to stop working for caregiving responsibilities. Canada’s public pensions have also put in place protections for persons who have lost their employment during the pandemic so that they will not suffer from a reduction in their pension at retirement. 

As a female leader of a major social security organization, what is your message to the global social security community on International Women’s Day?

Everyday women around the world contribute to social, economic, cultural and political advancements in society. I firmly believe that promoting gender equity in all dimensions and empowering women and girls is the most effective way to build a more peaceful, more inclusive and more prosperous world. Social security organizations are key players in advancing gender equity.

It is evident that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges around the world and there is long social and economic recovery road ahead. The need to pursue gender equity is even more important now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has been shown to disproportionately affect women and amplify gender inequalities. It is important to adapt inclusive recovery plans, which provide economic and social stability for all. Diversity is at the heart of future economic successes. When we take steps to advance gender equity, we can remove the barriers that hold us back and create a world of possibilities. Ultimately, we all benefit when everyone is able to reach their full potential.