On Tuesday the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg declared that his government’s budget is firmly focused on getting Australians back into work, and keeping Australians who are still in work, at work. If that’s the true objective his budget must deliver for Australian women.
Because well before COVID-19 hit Australian women were bearing the brunt of a different type of pandemic: a crisis of economic insecurity borne not from financial illiteracy, as is popularly suggested, but structural disadvantages that compound over the course of a woman’s life.
It is the reason women over the age of 55 are the fastest growing group of the homeless people in Australia and have been for several years.
A 2016 report by the Senate’s economic committee found that one in three Australian women retire with nothing at all, and that on average men end their working lives with superannuation balances twice as large as women’s. This is hardly surprising given superannuation depends on consistent paid employment over the course of an adult’s life.
Women still face many structural barriers that make consistently earning a decent living much more difficult. Frankly, it would be more astonishing to discover a significant proportion of Australian women were reaching age 60 and finding a grand pot of gold waiting in the super account than it is to contemplate the opposite.
No financial ‘literacy’ program will help a woman accumulate retirement savings if there is very little income being earned. And very little income is earned when women are disproportionately represented in lower-paying essential fields like teaching, nursing and caring. When women are over-represented in casualised workforces where they miss out paid sick leave and annual leave. When women remain woefully underrepresented in higher paid positions and higher paying fields of work. When women earn less than their male counterparts even when they’re in similar positions. When women still undertake almost twice as much unpaid work as men do.
The alarm on these problems has been sounded by economists and feminists for decades. And COVID-19 has conspired with so many of the fault lines that have made economic security so precarious for women and compounded the damage. Exponentially.
Women have been adversely impacted by COVID19 in social and economic terms and the cumulative impact stands to undo a generation of progress for women in the workplace. There is no vantage point from which COVID19 is anything but devastating, but when viewed from the perspective of women and girls, it’s unspeakably bleak.
In fact, if you were a sadist desperate to entrench inequity and keep women out of paid work, you would be hard pressed to design a ‘solution’ as dreadfully effective as COVID19.
Which is why the upcoming Federal Budget has to prioritise investment in targeted policies that will help families and address the gendered impact of COVID19.
A blatantly ‘pink’ recession in which women have lost income and work at a greater rate than men, calls for concerted, targeted policies that will limit – not exacerbate – gender inequality.
The Executive Director of Per Capita Emma Dawson is calling on the government to adopt a care-led recovery because of the clear evidence that investing in the care economy has significant, quantifiable long-term benefits.
“Australia’s economy, and our way of life, won’t recover until we can get women back to work. For that to happen, the government must create good, secure jobs for women and lift the quality of service in the care economy,” Dawson says.
“Rather than a gas-fired recovery, I’d like to see a care-led recovery,” Ms Dawson said. “We need a new social compact for Australia, centred on the concept of care: care for each other, care for our communities, care for our environment, care for our future. This must begin with an investment in the care economy.”
We will not accidentally stumble on measures that improve the chances for Australian women to develop a scintilla of economic security. It will only be achieved when it’s intentionally pursued.
The only countries – and indeed companies – that have ever made meaningful reductions in gender inequality have done so by design.
If getting Australians back into work is the government’s true priority, the most effective lever the Treasurer can pull is to make high quality early education and care free.
Universally accessible, high quality early education is one of the most effective measures that will help women return to work – and even increase their work – after this pandemic. It will – without question – boost the economy considerably and generate an employment boom for the sector itself.
It will also – without question – provide Australian children with the best possible start to life.
For families, children, women and the economy overhauling early education is the policy that will help Australia emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic in better shape.
Back in early June a survey of 2,200 families by The Parenthood revealed the extent to which COVID19 had adversely impacted finances in Australian households and confirmed the flow on effect for women would be particularly pronounced.
Almost half (42%) of families reported at least one parent was earning less as a result of COVID, with 16% of respondents reporting both parents had seen their income reduced.
A third of parents (34%) reported that they would need to reduce days or remove their children from early learning altogether when out-of-pocket fees returned, and reduce their work as a result.
In 68% of those households the parent who would stop or reduce work would be a woman.
Despite the well documented and widely-publicised adverse impacts being suffered by women out of this crisis, not just in employment terms but in health outcomes too, very few measures have been introduced to combat the disproportionate burden being carried by women.
To the contrary the Federal government has announced a number of stimulus packages in the wake of COVID19 that have specifically advantaged men.
It is time to proactively design policies and packages that will deliver for women – and demand that of our leaders. The risk of another generation of Australian women being relegated to life-long economic insecurity and poverty is real.
Until the first Tony Abbott- Joe Hockey budget in 2014, a statement outlining how the various budget measures would affect women was published at budget time. It was – and remains – scandalous that this critical gender analysis was shelved.
Without being measured, it isn’t counted. This Federal budget, more than ever before, needs to be scrutinised for the impact it will have on women. And if it is ‘all about jobs’ and it doesn’t deliver for women, it’s not all about jobs.