Growing gender inequity in the wake of COVID

Female-dominated industries have been at the forefront of Australia’s COVID-19 pandemic response.

For example our nursing, midwifery and carer workforces (of which 89% are women), have swung into action, showing extraordinary strength and sacrifice while delivering quality care to the community and dealing with new challenges daily. Teachers, early childcare educators, retail workers and cleaners are the other essential workers, all of which belong to highly feminised industries (ie. 96% of early childcare educators are women) and have also kept us going.

Yet despite this heavy reliance on female-dominated industries in responding to COVID-19, federal policy so far has failed to address existing and escalating gender inequalities.

Australia was lagging on gender equality well before this pandemic hit. In 2020, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index ranked Australia 44 out of 153 countries. Each year we’ve slid down the rankings, having started at 15th when the index launched in 2006. The top four positions are occupied by the Nordic countries, all of which are leaders in providing extensive access to childcare. New Zealand comes in at number six.

Outside the professional realms, women are also the majority of unpaid carers. Before COVID women already did double the amount of unpaid work than men. They are more likely to care for sick family members and take on education-related responsibilities while children are home from school.

Preliminary survey results from the University of Melbourne show mothers are spending an extra hour each day on unpaid housework and four extra hours on childcare. Fathers are spending about half of that eff ort, putting in 30 extra minutes on housework and two additional hours on childcare during the crisis. On a field that was already uneven, the public health crisis is further widening the gap between men and women in paid and unpaid work.

Early announcements of free childcare were welcomed by many- access to childcare is a key enabler of women’s participation in the workforce. Unfortunately, the rapid end of this policy along with the termination of Job Keeper for early childhood educators (the only group of workers who have had Job Keeper stopped prematurely) unfairly discriminates against women. Questions about why such a positive policy initiative that supports women was reversed, have yet to be answered.

So far during this pandemic, federal stimulus announcements have primarily targeted the building, construction, manufacturing and defence industries, all largely male dominated. We have not seen the same level of targeted measures in female-led industries or in the care economy.

Aged care investment in skills training and increased staffing levels is most apparent. Existing and future commitments in aged care funding will only benefit residents and those who care for them if the funds are tied to the provision of care staff. In the absence of any accountability or transparency in how this funding is allocated, means there is a further risk that profits will win out over care delivery.

The federal government’s announcement to allow for early access of savings designated for retirement has seen almost three million Australians draw from their retirement nest eggs. Although men currently have accessed the scheme in higher numbers, women have withdrawn higher amounts and are more likely than men to have drained their accounts. We know that due to the gender pay gap and career breaks women take for caring responsibilities, they already retire with up to 47% less retirement savings than men.

Women over the age of 55 are already the fastest growing group of Australians that are financially insecure, and this pandemic will set women further behind. Modelling undertaken by Industry Super Australia shows that a 30-year-old who accesses $20,000 from super now could lose about $100,000 when they hit retirement.

A 40-year-old could lose more than $63,000. Any short-term benefit is likely to be outweighed by the long-term consequences that could see more women retire in poverty or experience economic insecurity in retirement. It is critical the federal government keeps its election promise of delivering the planned superannuation legislated increase to 12% by 2025. This will see 0.5% increments yearly from 1 July 2021.

The casual workforce has been hit hard during this pandemic with many either losing their jobs or experiencing a significant reduction in hours, particularly in the accommodation, food services, retail and hospitality sectors. Again, women, who are overrepresented in lower-paid, insecure and casual jobs are disproportionately impacted.

Health and economic crises can intensify existing gender inequalities and the full impacts and effects are still being assessed and understood. Nonetheless, we know that gender equality has a long way to go in this country and we hope that policy shaping the post pandemic recovery eff orts both acknowledges and improves gender inequities. If the government can place gender firmly at the centre of its considerations, there is a very real opportunity to improve gender equality in this country.

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