Health equity expert advises Canadian government on how to re-engage women in the economy after COVID

Carla Hilario’s research examines how best to deliver mental health services to teens during and after the pandemic.

Carla Hilario

U of A nursing professor Carla Hilario is serving on a task force advising the Canadian government on how to tackle the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women in the workforce. (Photo: Laughing Dog Photography; taken pre-COVID-19)

Women have been hit hardest when it comes to job losses during COVID-19, so when the federal government brings down its budget on April 19, the first since the pandemic began, it’s expected getting women back to work will be a top priority. 

The government has tapped 18 women to form Canada’s Task Force on Women in the Economy, including Carla Hilario, an expert on health equity and assistant professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Nursing.

Hilario’s area of expertise is health care, not economics, so she thought there might have been a mistake when she first received the invitation to join the task force. Then she saw the list of members with backgrounds ranging from energy, banking, IT and non-profits to Indigenous engagement in the economy, and realized she could contribute a unique perspective.

“As a health scientist, I’m part of the community of women working in science, and I’m also part of the nursing profession, which has been at the forefront of the pandemic,” she said. “I identify as Filipina, I’m a first-generation immigrant, and my mother worked as a caregiver when she first moved to Canada. These identities and communities inform how I do my research.” 

“An additional perspective which they also wanted me to bring is as the mother of a young child,” said Hilario, whose daughter Gabriel is 15 months old. 

Addressing inequities exacerbated by COVID-19

Bound by a confidentiality agreement, Hilario can’t share details of what is discussed at the task force meetings, but she said diversity is the group’s strength as it tackles the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women in the workforce. 

“We are looking at interventions to assist women in regaining full employment and improving their labour force participation, and also looking at what kind of social infrastructures and measures are needed to address inequities faced by particular groups of women—newcomers, visible minorities, mothers with young children—that we know were present before the pandemic and were exacerbated by the pandemic,” Hilario said. 

The task force will continue to advise Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Minister of Middle Class Prosperity Mona Fortier as the economy reopens. 

Hilario’s research focuses on another group hit harder than most during COVID-19: youth with poor mental health. She has just begun a three-year project with funding from the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute. Hilario and her team will interview Alberta teens about their mental health during the pandemic.

“Many people have a gut feeling about what’s happening with youth during the pandemic, and it’s not so different from what everybody else is feeling, in terms of how this past year has affected mental health, from the WHO perspective, of being able to respond to the ‘normal’ stresses of life, contribute meaningfully and make connections with others,” Hilario said. 

“Youth are in the time of life when mental health challenges often arise for the first time, and paradoxically, during the pandemic we have experienced dramatic changes to how we can access mental health care,” she pointed out. 

Collaborating with youth to support them

Hilario’s team will ask the young people about how their day-to-day lives were affected by the pandemic public health measures, including not going to school or seeing peers. They will examine which mental health services were available and which were not, and try to understand which were the most helpful. The team will produce an inventory of the types of resources available to teens during the pandemic and suggest ways to improve them.

“Those supports could be services from professionals, online mental health promotion programs, even peer support,” Hilario said.

“Family connectedness is a really big factor for youth mental health, especially during lockdown when they could only see their families,” she said. “Of course, the lockdown took a toll on the parents in their efforts to support their children, especially for some families also dealing with other effects of the pandemic, such as loss of jobs and income, all of which are social determinants of mental health.” 

As with her previous research on how immigrant young men cope with stress, Hilario is convening youth research collaborators who will guide the research process, interpretation of data and dissemination of the findings. 

“This is a key piece of the project because youth are not just providing the data but also informing the sense-making,” Hilario said. “It is so important to have this oversight from the population we are purporting to help with this work.”