How do we turn a ‘she-cession’ into a ‘she-covery’?

How do we turn a ‘she-cession’ into a ‘she-covery’? Here are three ideas to start on

"Let’s not waste the opportunity to turn the ‘she-cession’ around -- and make this a turning point for gender workplace equality in Australia."

Of the 835,000 jobs lost since March, 446,000 were jobs held by women: equivalent to almost three times the number of jobs in the mining sector.   

This is unsurprising. Women make up a larger share of some of the worst-affected sectors such as hospitality, social services and education. And with the OECD warning that the worst affected sectors will not be able to resume as before, some jobs in these sectors will likely be permanently lost.

With the Early Childhood Education and Care Relief package ceasing from July and Jobkeeper support from September, families will face higher levels of financial stress than ever before. 

Faced with substantially fewer job opportunities and high living costs, more women may be forced out of the workforce and take up the larger share of caring responsibilities. Already, more women than men have given up on the job market altogether. In the two months to May 2020, 1.2 times as many women left the workforce compared to men. 

The Australian Government has acknowledged the disproportionate effects of the crisis on women. 

But much of the stimulus funding announced so far has been concentrated on the construction industry which currently has the biggest gender imbalance of any sector, where male-held jobs outnumber women by seven to one

So what policy levers can be pulled to turn a ‘she-cession’ into a ‘she-recovery’?

Here are three practical actions:

Reduce pressure on household budgets, including childcare costs.

Childcare in Australia absorbs nearly a quarter of wages for a couple on average wages with two children in childcare, even after benefit entitlements. This is far above the OECD average of 14%. Often there is a poor economic tradeoff for households forced to make a choice between working and paying for childcare. The Government can help restore some balance by rolling out a targeted extension of the free childcare package to assist parents whose jobs have been affected by COVID, until this support is no longer needed. 

Promote gender balance in the areas targeted by stimulus measures. 

The targeted stimulus measures are an opportunity to try to narrow the gender gap in traditionally male-dominated sectors. 

For example, CSQ’s Women in Construction Report explains, “There are approximately 375,000 electricians, carpenters and plumbers in Australia. These three occupations account for over 30% of all construction trades workers. Yet only 3,000 women participate in these three occupations nationwide — less than 1%. There are, however, some trades where females can be more easily found. These roles generally relate to the ancillary and miscellaneous aspects of construction work, such as crane chaser, surveyor’s assistant, line marking and sign writing. Yet even in these occupations, female participation is significantly lower than in non-construction occupations.”

Positive steps could range from putting ‘gender on the tender’ as one of the considerations for assessing bidders for government contracts, to mandatory reporting by recipient organisations on key gender equality metrics — such as jobs, pay and role seniority — to central agencies such as the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. This will shine a light on any gendered outcomes, and allow for timely adjustments if needed.

Recognise that education, healthcare and public services are economic drivers too. 

Stimulus strategies need to prioritise sectors with the highest economic multipliers. While ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure projects offer well-understood business cases and productivity benefits, ‘non-market’ industries such as the healthcare and social assistance, education and public administration sectors should not be overlooked as part of economic recovery packages. 

The Productivity Commission (PC) has also identified that “Omitting such industries from the assessment of the overall economic performance of the economy is increasingly problematic given their increasing significance.”

Importantly, these three sectors are significant job generators for both men and women, accounting for nearly 30% of total employment in Australia, and collectively employing 2.2 females for every male.

The Australia Institute has estimated that for every million dollars the government spends on construction, only 0.2 direct jobs for women would be created for every 1 job for men, while the same amount spent on education, for example, would create 10.6 direct jobs for women and 4.3 direct jobs for men. It also estimates that “Education and health give the first and second most employment per $1m at 14.9 and 10.2 people respectively. As might be expected, given their high female intensity, they also give the biggest direct female employment impact (at 10.6 and 7.9 people respectively) and are well in excess of the third most effective industry at creating jobs”.

In a time of widespread structural transition in the jobs landscape, policymakers need to look at redeploying displaced employees into sustainable jobs.

A prolonged downturn may see more people shifting from private health, education and care systems to public services. These will all cause further pressures on the public sector administering these services.

Governments need to be prepared to meet increased demand, and this can be done through enabling policies – including job creation — all the way from school education to targeted large scale investment to boost these sectors.  

We can’t plan — or claim — a successful economic recovery if half the population is left behind. Let’s not waste the opportunity to turn the ‘she-cession’ around — and make this a turning point for gender workplace equality in Australia.

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