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The Prosperity Project

September 2, 2020

Lois Nahirney on how the success and well-being of women is directly tied to Canada’s social and economic recovery from COVID-19. 

Tell us about the Prosperity Project, how would you describe its purpose and what makes it unique?

The Prosperity Project was founded to recognize and counteract the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 is having on Canadian women. At its core, the project is about advancing gender equity and ensuring that women’s economic prosperity is achieved. We have made important progress over the last 40 years and it is critical to ensure that the pandemic does not erase that progress. We believe that by working for a prosperous and fair future for all women, we will improve society as a whole.

The Prosperity Project is a true collaboration. It brings together a diverse group of over 60 women leaders from across Canada who serve as the founding visionaries. It is the brainchild of Pamela Jeffery, who had the idea that by bringing together women leaders from across the country we could help to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on women. We are also currently in the process of onboarding another hundred visionaries and other supporters to ensure that we are representative of Canada’s population.

We are all navigating the global pandemic in different ways. What’s a key insight from how the Prosperity Project is responding to the crisis?

These are challenging times for our communities, our families and our country. Women have had a higher percentage of job loss and job layoffs during the pandemic. They have also had more responsibilities at home including full-time childcare, homeschooling and elder care while trying to maintain their job productivity. The Prosperity Project is about helping to address this situation. Focusing on the success and well-being of women is critical to the social and economic health and recovery of Canada.

We have created five different initiatives in response to the pandemic. The first matches professionals with non-profits focused on women – the professionals help these organizations reinvent their business models and find ways forward to meet the urgent and growing needs of the women they serve. The second is our Prosperity Study which is Canada’s first inclusive on-line national long-term multi-generational study of 10,000 women in all socio-economic groups. It will uncover and share practical solutions that will provide insights to employers and policy-makers on actions that need to be taken to improve gender equality.

We know that women make or influence up to 80% of household purchases so we created the Prosperity Project Household Spending Index to serve as a barometer of confidence in the Canadian economy during the COVID-19 recovery and post-recovery periods. It will measure month to month variation in economic activity based on a panel of diverse women from across Canada in all socio-economic groups. Our fourth initiative is a campaign designed to increase the labour force participation rate of women, the number of female STEM graduates and workers, the number of women going into skilled trades, and the number of women in leadership and decision-making roles (and in the pipeline to these roles) in the COVID-19 pre-recovery, recovery and post-recovery periods.

Lastly we will track women in executive roles, senior management roles and in the pipeline to senior management within Canada’s largest 500 public companies, crown corporations and multinational subsidiaries. Through this inclusive research, we will shine a light on women who also identify as Indigenous, women of colour, persons with disabilities and/or LGBTQ2+. The intention is for this data to increase transparency, accountability, and inform policies and best practices around gender equality and succession planning.
Our response to the crisis is about ensuring that a gender lens is applied to Canada’s recovery from the pandemic. To do that we are drawing on a wealth of knowledge from women leaders across the country to get ideas and support. We want our response to be a true collaboration that reflects Canadian society and recognizes the particular needs of women in communities across the country.

We know that women – particularly women of colour and those working on the frontlines – have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. School closures and a shortage of daycare spaces have compounded this. How does this relate to the Prosperity Project’s work?

Those issues have been at the heart of how the Prosperity Project has been put together. We want to ensure the people we get engaged with the project understand and represent women of colour, women on the frontlines, the women that are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. And each of our initiatives is aimed at addressing this reality as well.

Tell us about how the Prosperity Project is making its work more inclusive and building engagement with different communities. Any tips or lessons to share with others in the sector about decreasing barriers and increasing participation?

We apply an intersectional and inclusivity lens to serve women who also identify as Indigenous, women of colour, refugees, persons with disabilities and/or LGBTQ2+. We recognize that different approaches are required to meet the distinct needs of all Canadian women including First Nations, Inuit and Métis women. We are currently identifying partner organizations in order to deliver our programs in a socially and culturally sensitive way. We also want to inform organizations and businesses about the things that they can be doing to be inclusive and accommodating – to make that approach part of how we do business.

Are there specific requests that the Prosperity Project has for the broader sector? Things you need help with, problems you’re trying to solve or wishes you have?

Women are 50% of the economy. A recent study showed when you advance women’s equality in Canada, it has the potential to add 0.6% annual incremental GDP growth. So if we can get women involved more – even 50 minutes more a day per week – in paid working hours it is worth about $150 billion in our economy over five years. If organizations can engage women just that much more each week that will make a substantial impact on the economy and will be essential to counteracting the recessionary effects that this pandemic is having on our country.

We want all sectors, government organizations and individuals to recognize and acknowledge that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women and that this impact is going to set back the limited progress that has been made in terms of advancing gender equity in Canada. Women earn 75% to 85% for every dollar that men earn. We need to close that wage gap and gender gap.

Second we want recognition that every organization and person can take a step to address this inequality. We have specific asks for government and private business. For government, we’re asking specifically for return to school plans to safely reopen elementary schools as soon as possible. As long as elementary schools remain closed more women will be unable to return to work. It creates incredible pressure for women when they are trying to do their jobs, care for children and help them with their schoolwork. We also need an affordable national childcare program. Unlike most industrialized countries, Canada doesn’t have one. Quebec has been an example where a family policy was introduced in 1997 and it increased Quebec’s labour force participation to about 81% in 2016 compared to just 75% in Ontario. We know that when there is a good childcare program it is to the benefit of women and families and it outweighs the costs. We also want government to regulate protection of frontline workers. We have had so many healthcare workers file workplace injury claims related to COVID, the majority of these are filed by women. So we are calling on government to keep women safe and protected at work.

There is so much that corporate Canada can do to take some very deliberate action. We want businesses to start setting female representation workforce targets related to pre-COVID 19 levels and higher. And we want to measure and reward corporations and companies that meet these targets. That means you looking at your organization and tracking what’s happening from your starting point. Set policies to mitigate gender bias and really help to recover from the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on women’s labour force participation. Women need to be represented – they are half our population.

We need to remember that when we do the return to work plans that we apply a gender lens. The return to work needs to be an equitable arrangement for both men and women. Who is getting to come back to work, who is staying at home and supporting the needs there and how do we ensure there is a balance?

We recognize that we need to deepen and broaden the talent pool through skills development. Merit and diversity aren’t mutually exclusive. There is unconscious bias in how women are recruited, promoted and receive training opportunities. Women and in particular women of colour are less likely to be treated equally in terms of performance based promotions and compensation. So we need a gender and diversity lens when we’re considering how we hire and deepen the talent in our organizations. When we can get women to succeed we all prosper. If we can get government and business to take some of these actions we will not only recover from the pandemic but make progress and realize an equitable country that we aspire to have.

What’s at stake if we don’t get this figured out?

If we don’t get this figured out we’re going to see a reduction in democratic participation in this country and we’ll see a reduction economically. If we can’t get women back to work there’s no way we can return to past GDP levels and see an increase in the GDP in our country. It is absolutely essential. We know that when we have a balance of men and women and diverse individuals in our organizations making decisions for our country, making decisions in terms of products for the market, that we get better quality outcomes. So what’s at stake is a true democratic country where we are supporting individuals, where they are represented and we are creating a sustainable future.

For people looking to engage with you, how can they get involved? Who can they contact?

We would love for people to get involved by volunteering for the initiatives and the studies that are being done. We have had a beautiful response from Canadians across the country and we want to build on that engagement. Our only criteria for participation is sharing our passion to mitigate the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women and that they help apply this inclusive lens on our work. We are grateful for any form of support from individuals and organizations. We all have a role to play and encourage you to visit our website and follow up on our social channels (Twitter, LinkedIn).

The Prosperity Project™ is a new not-for-profit organization founded to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Canadian women who are being disproportionately affected. The Project is pan-Canadian in scope and fills an important need to explicitly link women and prosperity, underscoring the economic importance of gender equality during the COVID-19 pre-recovery, recovery and post-recovery periods.

This is an unprecedented moment for democracy in Canada so we created Sector Spotlight to learn about how leading practitioners are responding to it. Have ideas for our next Sector Spotlight? Get in touch!

Lois Nahirney, Founding Visionary of the Prosperity Project and the CEO of DNA Power

Lois Nahirney is a founding visionary of the Prosperity Project and the CEO of DNA power. She has a doctorate and a master in business and has held a number of international senior executive roles. She is an advocate for gender equality and lives in Vancouver.