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International Women’s Day: Women at the heart of the COVID-19 recovery

To build back better post-COVID in support of a more resilient economy and businesses, we need to put the interests of women at the heart of the recovery.
March 2021
Rosa van den Beemt

Rosa van den Beemt

Vice President, Responsible Investment Analyst

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We celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day whilst at a critical juncture for global gender equality.

Although recent years have seen progress on, for example, female presentation in leadership positions, the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare and deepened already existing inequities:

  • According to Reuters, women account for 70% of frontline workers – and therefore face higher health risks
  • 75% of the world’s unpaid care work is already carried out by women – and according to both King’s College London and Forbes, the pandemic has disproportionally increased the time women have to spend on domestic responsibilities – creating mental and physical challenges, and risks of burnout.
  • The Washington Post reports that black women are almost twice as likely to be laid off, furloughed, or have hours and/or pay reduced because of the pandemic.
  • As reported by openDemocracy, Indigenous women, especially those living in remote communities, face barriers to access to healthcare – and if they do receive care, are more likely to experience discrimination and mistreatment.

Yet, we know from research by Mercer that when women thrive, our society and economies do too. To build back better post-COVID in support of a more resilient economy and businesses, we need to put the interests of women at the heart of the recovery.

Investors can play a critical role

We can continue to push for policies and practices at our investee companies that support women’s equal participation in the workforce, including paid sick leave, childcare support, care leave, professional development programs, parental leave, and flexible work arrangements.

We can advocate for better female representation at board and senior management levels, especially when it comes to BIPOC women, and ask companies to improve diversity & inclusion strategies and demonstrate that they are working to close gender and racial pay gaps.

To keep companies accountable and understand their progress, we can ask for better data on their human capital management strategy and performance by asking them, for example, to disclose to the Workforce Disclosure Initiative.

Our engagement on gender equality

At BMO GAM, we have been engaging for gender equality for many years, and have expanded our focus in recognition of the intersectionality of gender, race and other categories of identity that have been historically disadvantaged. We believe that diverse workforces and boards create more resilient businesses that support long-term performance.

What we’re doing

Within our own business (BMO Financial Group)
With our investee companies
  • Set a new 2025 goal to reach 40-60% gender equity in senior leadership roles (currently at 40%)
  • Recognized for sixth year in Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index
  • $9.5 billion in loans to women-owned businesses in 2020
  • Pledged $100,000 in grants to Canadian women-owned businesses to celebrate their innovation and resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic and provide them with support

In 2020 we:

  • Had 165 engagement interactions with 141 companies on diversity, equity and inclusion in 2020
  • 8% of our engagements aligned to advancing SDG 5 – Gender Equality Reached 20 milestones related to diversity, equity & inclusion
  • Voted against management for diversity concerns at 1,023 company meetings

During 2020 we engaged extensively with investee companies on their COVID-19 response, including health and safety of workers, and support for employees having to take time off related to illness or caring for family members, as well as support for people working from home. We continued gender diversity and equality engagement initiatives globally with a specific focus on Japan, the UK, Canada and the US. We also implemented a global voting policy with minimum board gender diversity requirements for all markets, and increased expectations in the US and Canada – in 2021 we are requiring at least 25% gender diversity on North American boards. Finally, we expanded our collaborative efforts on gender equality by, in addition to our 30% Club memberships in Canada and the UK, joining the French chapter and the US 30 Percent Coalition.

Women are often the first to feel the negative impacts of systemic ESG challenges, including public health crises and climate change. But we also need women to address those challenges: research by PwC shows that female directors consistently prioritize ESG issues in a way their male counterparts do not, and can better see the links between ESG and company strategy.

Let’s get all hands on deck in the coming years to ensure we accelerate rather than slow down progress on gender equality.


The information, opinions, estimates or forecasts contained in this document were obtained from sources reasonably believed to be reliable and are subject to change at any time.

BMO Global Asset Management is a brand name that comprises BMO Asset Management Inc., BMO Investments Inc., BMO Asset Management Corp., BMO Asset Management Limited and BMO’s specialized investment management firms.

®/™Registered trade-marks/trade-mark of Bank of Montreal, used under licence.

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