Our Minister for Women is missing on how the COVID-19 crisis is disproportionately impacting women

Our Minister for Women is missing on how the COVID-19 crisis is disproportionately impacting women


I live in Melbourne, so it’s been back to lockdown (and home-schooling my two primary-school-aged children). And as I’ve had a bit of time on my hands – in keeping with my tendency to forensically examine the Government’s track-record on all things gender equality — I decided to take a close look at what the Hon. Marise Payne, Australia’s Minister for Women, has had to say about the well-documented, disproportionate social and economic impact of COVID-19 on women.

Think of it as a new, feminist version of “Where’s Wally?”. Let’s call it, “Where’s our Minister for Women?”

Yes, right now she’s currently in the United States in her capacity as Foreign Minister. But I’ve been playing this game for a few weeks now, and have gone back a couple of months to see what’s been said and done within the women’s portfolio.

I, admittedly, decided to embark on this task whilst also attempting to help my youngest child with a report on Ada Lovelace and listening to my eldest child’s violin lesson, which sounds something like dying cats. But please don’t assume that this in any way compromised the quality of my research.

However, given that context, you would be right to consider what follows an open letter of sorts to the Minister for Women from a particularly frustrated mum in lock-down — something I’m sure many can relate to.

So, having declared that interest, had my third coffee and the last slice of carrot cake my neighbour brought round over the weekend…let’s do this!

First, a spoiler alert: Once I got started, I soon realised that this exercise could more accurately be described as an analysis of what Australia’s Minister for Women has not had to say about the impact of COVID-19 on women.

Since the beginning of March and up until July 21 when I put the numbers to the Senator’s office, Payne has tweeted 254 times. Of those tweets, 42 could notionally be described as having anything, anything at all, to do with her portfolio as Minister for Women. That’s just 16.5 percent of all of Payne’s tweets related to women since the Australian pandemic began.

Of the 42 women-related tweets, only 12 were specifically related to women and COVID-19, so 28.6 percent of women related tweets and just under 5 percent of all tweets.

Of the meagre 12 women and COVID-19 related tweets, only two, I would argue, offered any specific and concrete solutions or funding to address the variety of issues regarding women and coronavirus.

Those issues include: the fact that women are more likely to have lost work or hours due to the crisis, they are taking on more of the pandemic-related unpaid caring and housework, their ability to work is more likely to be negatively influenced by the accessibility and affordability of childcare, they are more likely to experience domestic abuse as they are locked in their homes with perpetrators, and, last but not least, all of these issues could significantly undermine what little progress, if any, Australia has made in shoring up women’s so-called economic security.

The first more specific tweet on March 29th announced an “extra” $150 million in violence against women funding to help ensure women’s safety during the crisis, a sum that most front-line women’s safety organisations described at the time as woefully inadequate. In fact, it turned out that almost half of that funding will not be distributed for more than a year, according to a recent report in The Sydney Moring Herald.

Women’s Safety NSW chief executive Hayley Foster told The Herald that governments were failing to “treat domestic violence as the crisis that it is … a response that takes three, six or 12 months; that’s not good enough”. I agree.

The second tweet was on June 17th and made reference to a $1.8 million investment under the Office for Women’s Leaders Development Program (WLDP) for 4 grants recipients to develop projects targeted towards achieving women’s economic security, including a flexible work toolkit, financial literacy for First Nations women, a mentorship program for women in business facing COVID-19 related challenges, and a program to develop new skills amongst part-time and casual workers.

Given all the money that’s expected to be spent on jobs, and shovels, for the boys (hundreds of millions), you would think the Government could do a bit more for the ladies. And despite the COVID-19 spin in the press release announcing the funding, it turned out that the WLDP has been running for 20 years and the $1.8 million is not “new” money to address the impacts of COVID-19 on women.

Senator Marise Payne is, clearly, not wholly ignorant of the challenges women face as a result of COVID-19. She referenced them in a July 15th tweet highlighting her contribution to the UN Human Rights Council discussion on COVID-19 and the rights of women and girls. She wrote, “We need everybody’s capabilities if we are to recover as strongly as possible from this crisis.” That’s true.

On May 28th, Payne tweeted that she hosted a virtual COVID-19 Response and Recovery Roundtable to “hear from experts on women’s key role in our economic recovery and ensuring women’s safety, covering practical ideas about opportunities and mitigating risks”. We have, however, not been told who was at the meeting and what was discussed? (The Minister’s office did respond to a request for more detail.) Why the lack of transparency?

On May 14th, Payne tweeted a link to a statement she gave in Parliament in which she addressed the impact of COVID-19 on women. She acknowledged that the job figures released the same day indicated that the pandemic was “affecting men and women in different ways”, with women accounting for 55 percent of the job losses. She conceded that women’s workforce participation rates had fallen by 2.9 percentage points to 58.4 percent. She highlighted that the demand for unpaid care work was disproportionately affecting women’s ability to undertake paid work. And she spoke about the increased risk of domestic abuse.

It was probably Payne’s first, and I would argue, thus far, only, specific engagement with the conversation the rest of us seem to be having about COVID-19 and women — a conversation that regularly touches upon all of these issues.

 “As a Government we are very aware that women will be vital to the economic recovery,” said Payne.

It’s not enough for Australia’s Minister for Women to very occasionally — and given my audit of her public statements on social media since the start of the pandemic I do mean very occasionally — acknowledge the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 on women, yet pursue, or endorse by way of complicit silence (has she ventured a comment on the implications of the child care “snap back”, no crickets), a recovery agenda that either ignores or disadvantages women.

The Minister did not reply to Women’s Agenda’s request last week for comment on her record of engaging in public debate around these issues.

To be fair, I fully appreciate that the Senator has a very busy job; she is also Australia’s Foreign Minister. And having looked through her Tweets forensically, I respect the good work she has done re-patriating Australians stranded abroad whilst juggling various regional and geopolitical diplomatic challenges.

I tip my hat.

But, that said, I won’t shy away from highlighting what I believe is a woeful lack of attention to the women’s portfolio at a critical time. 

And perhaps it’s an indication that the women’s portfolio should not be the side project of a minister who already has one of the biggest roles in Cabinet. Unfortunately, it’s also true that there are not many other women available to choose from.

Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica

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