By Wendy Tuohy
May 24, 2020 — 12.06am
Australian women are suffering more job losses, worse anxiety and more-dire long-term financial prospects than men due to the economic shutdown caused by COVID-19.
Academics and advocates including Sex Discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, say more women are likely to be pushed into poverty, which will extend into later life unless gender-specific solutions are included in the recovery.
A joint Melbourne University Policy Lab and La Trobe University study found April labour force figures showing greater job losses for women: it found 15.8 per cent had experienced job loss compared with 11 per cent of men.
The Life During Lockdown study found women are less likely than men to be working at home with their hours and pay unchanged and are suffering from more sleep disturbance and greater fear about funding their retirement.
One in three women said they were more anxious during the pandemic, compared with one in five men and 20.4 per cent of mothers said they were anxious “most of the time”, compared with 14 per cent of fathers.
One in five women (20.2 per cent) were “very worried” about retirement, compared with 16.3 per cent of men and 59 per cent of women were worried about having enough money, compared with 54 per cent of men.
Melbourne University associate professor of sociology, Leah Ruppanner, said the study, combined with April unemployment data that showed women were losing jobs at nearly twice the rate of men, revealed women face worrying disadvantage.
If government recovery efforts continued to focus mainly on heavy industry and construction, in which job numbers for women are proportionally low, “we could see 50 years’ gender equality progress be eroded overnight.”
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said several indicators, including ABS job loss and Grattan Institute employment forecasts that women and young people would be hardest hit, had “highlighted in razor sharp focus how gender inequality can be amplified in a crisis situation”.
“Through a lot of the information now coming together people are seeing that quite clearly. This is laying the groundwork for some pretty serious poverty for women in the future if you piece it all together,” she said.
Our society is entirely leaning on one gender carrying the weight of being on the front line, or having completely lost their job.Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins
That Australia had a highly gender segregated job market, with women concentrated in several lower-paid industries hardest hit by coronavirus including retail trades, hospitality and accommodation – “that shut down over a day” – had also made them more vulnerable to long-term economic disadvantage.
They were also more likely to be in part-time or casual jobs, due to needing to shoulder most caring responsibilities, which had been among the first to go.
This, plus the fact women are concentrated in lower-paid front-line industries of healthcare, social assistance and education meant “our society is entirely leaning on one gender carrying the weight; of being on the front line, or having completely lost their job.”
Quality affordable childcare had been shown during the pandemic response to be key to women fully participating in the paid workforce and it must be a focus of recovery policies.
Workplace Gender Equality Agency CEO, Libby Lyons, said a new system of childcare was needed, under which optional early years education could be provided at schools for children from the age of two.
“Early childhood education and childcare is absolutely critical for women to be able to fully participate as we move into the recovery stage.
“We are calling for a review and inquiry into how we move forward and this could require structural change. We want a national discussion,” she said.
“We need to use this as an opportunity to ensure as we move into economic recovery women have equal opportunity to participate in the workforce as men … If we look at our education system and make it from [when children are ages] 2 to 18, the infrastructure is there.”
I think this will amount to a step back for women when we already had so far to go.Professor Rae Cooper, University of Sydney Business School
Women’s employment specialist Professor Rae Cooper, of the University of Sydney Business School, says another disturbing factor is that women’s under-employment “is double mens’ typically, and they have higher levels, starkly so, at the moment.”
“This is not just about job losses, underemployment is also a highly feminised issue … we need vigilance from government, business and organisations.
“The history of recessions tells us women do worse out of recessions than men do and we tend in those times to see a reduction of equality strategies. The only way to avoid that is to … design gender equality into recovery strategies.”
The worst of the work access set-back for women may be yet to come and that on current trends in underemployment “women’s earnings are going to contract sharply relative to men’s”.
“I think this will amount to a step back for women when we already had so far to go.”
Co-author of the Life During Lockdown research, La Trobe University political scientist associate professor Andrea Carson, said a special meeting of the Victorian government’s Equal Workplace Advisory Council, of which she is a member, had been called to address women’s economic status in the downturn this week.
The study also compares the status during coronavirus of Australian and American women and will be published internationally.
Disclosure: Smita Nair Jain has nothing to disclose. She doesn’t own stock in any publicly traded companies and does not hold investments in the technology companies. She has equivalent of the American 401(k) plan in India that is automatically managed. (Updated: May 24, 2020)
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