Our ‘luck’ from uncelebrated and underpaid women is running out

The ‘luck’ Australia’s had from uncelebrated and underpaid women is running out: Sam Mostyn’s plea for change

Sam Mostyn delivered a powerful call to action on Wednesday, urging Australia to put care at the centre of the pandemic recovery. 

She spelt out how Australia can capitalise on the important lessons from COVID-19, to ensure the country makes the most of its available resources and talent. 

And she called on policymakers to invest in the social infrastructure to make it happen. 

Speaking in her capacity as president of Chief Executive Women, Mostyn told the National Press Club that COVID-19 has proven that we can implement big changes when they’re needed.

And those changes are needed right now.

“Australia is running out of luck,” she said.

“The pandemic has left women exhausted and deepened their inequality, particularly in the workplace. For too long, the un-celebrated driving force behind our luck has been underpaid, or unpaid, women.”

Australia needs to intentionally invest in care, Mostyn said. That includes investing in childhood education, paid parental leave for all new parents, superannuation reform and investments in the care industries to give employees well-paid, secure jobs and respect at work. 

She also issued a call for immediate action for addressing sexual assault and domestic and family violence, to ensure women are safe at home, at work and in the community. 

And she urged Australia to tap the full strength and ideas of First Nations women.

These changes will together unlock economic participation for women, to secure Australia’s luck into the future, Mostyn said. 

Her speech drew on the experiences of the Pandemic to highlight how, when up against a wall, Australia can make the fast changes to save industries and save jobs.

But the pandemic also highlighted the critical role of so-called “feminised industries”, with women disproportionately taking on the front line roles, in healthcare and across other caring sectors like childcare. 

She noted reports showing a mass exodus of 20,000 critical care nurses, due to the emotional toll of the pandemic.

Mostyn also spoke about how when millions of people are locked down at home, women were doing the bulk of the remote homeschooling, taking on the increased domestic work and putting their professional aspirations on hold to deal with the complex and additional demands on their time. 

“In Australia, we like to tell ourselves we are the lucky country – and certainly our political leaders use this framing often. And yet among our vast natural resources, possibly the most under-celebrated part of our luck has been the unpaid work of women.  We are lucky to have benefited from that for so long. But we cannot rely on it forever,” Mostyn said.

“We hear a lot about economic growth, economic resilience and strategic competitive interests; about “muscling up to threats” and “building back better.” But what we virtually never hear is how care and economic performance and success go hand in hand. They are inextricably linked as the foundations of our future prosperity.”

Mostyn said that as we’re moving into a federal election campaign, the typical rhetoric we can expect will be that of infrastructure and jobs in construction.

“We all travel on roads, but what is the infrastructure that has kept us alive and together through this pandemic?

“It is the human and social infrastructure of the care economy, one that is powered by women who are often underpaid, if they’re paid at all. 

The care economy has accomplished extraordinary things, Mostyn said, and it needs to be valued and maintained with the same energy and focus that goes into roads.

And on the topic of the so-called Great Resignation, Mostyn noted another term for what so many women are experiencing: The Great Exhaustion 

“It is hard to imagine a more tumultuous period than the one from which we are now trying to emerge.”

Mostyn spoke about the voices that we’ve heard this year, from Grace Tame to Yasmin Poole, Noor Haydar, Dixie Link-Gordon and Antoinette Braybrook, among so many others.

They’re gaining momentum at a time when 45% of the 18 to 29 year old women report being sexually harassed over the past five years, costing the national economy $3.8 billion. 

“We are now living with what Professor Elizabeth Hill, from Sydney University, describes as a great “weariness and whiplash” for women right across this country.

“The weariness and emotional havoc of paid and unpaid work during lockdown. The whiplash of disproportionate jobs and hours lost during Covid where 55 per cent of the jobs lost during April 2020 were women’s, and this year, 60% of the job losses across Australia between June-September were jobs lost by women.”

“As AIIW has reported today, young women were particularly hard hit, accounting for more than two-thirds of the jobs lost by young people. As they recommend, we will need investment in skills, training and career pathways for women. Add to this the more than 90,000 Australian parents who stayed out of the workforce last year because the cost of childcare was too high and the many more who didn’t work because there is a chronic shortage of high quality, mutually beneficial flexible working arrangements.

“So when we continually hear the language of “building back better”, “bouncing back” and “muscling up”, we at CEW ask ourselves, what would it take to build a post-pandemic nation that flourishes on the world stage by using every ounce of its talent? 

“What would our country look like if it finally moved on from all these worn-out notions of toughness and blokey mateship and, instead, began reimagining a society that truly celebrates care and invests in all its women; a country that ensures opportunities for women and men alike, and that treats women with the decency and respect that is our basic human right. 

“Not just as a moral obligation – although that should be enough – but as a powerful driver of performance, innovation and effectiveness in every sector of society.”

 An incremental response from government and business won’t cut it, Mostyn said. 

“Now is the time for Australia to develop a comprehensive plan for growth which closes the widening social and economic gap between Australians along gender, class, racial, cultural, ableism, LGBTQIA and geographical lines. And for us to recognise that the compounding effect of excluding multiple diverse identities robs us all of our full potential as a nation.”

“We need to capitalise on important lessons from the COVID-19 crisis and put care at the centre of the economy AND WE NEED TO PUT WOMEN AT EVERY DECISION-MAKING TABLE.”

And speaking on the day before the Days of Activism begins on November 25. Mostyn noted the woman or her child being killed every 10 days by a former or current partner. It has to stop, and we must have a genuine commitment to making it happen. 

We also need gender diversity targets and action on making visible commitments to gender equity happen. The impact of having women at the decision-making table can’t be underestimated. 

Mostyn also spoke about the opportunity for Australia to become a country where men take parental leave in huge numbers and work flexibly as the norm. 

And she spoke about the transition to a low emissions future, how the new opportunities for wealth creation are available through climate action and “millions of women are wanting to play their part in that.” 

Mostyn also said that Australia must embrace the full strength of the voices and ambitions of First Nation women, including reckoning with our long history and accepting the invitation in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, moving for Constitutional recognition of First Nation’s women’s voices. 

“We cannot waste any more time,” Mostyn said. 

“We cannot waste anymore good ideas.

“We need to seize this moment because our luck is running out and luck is not a strategy.”

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