Our members of the Australian College of Nursing have been integral to our battle with COVID-19 since it hit our shores in February this year; providing direct care, advising on strategy, advocating for policy reform, overseeing digital health innovations and at home – schooling children, keeping families and friends connected and caring for the elderly.
One of the observations made during this time, is how the COVID-19 crisis has affected men and women in different ways.
Women have made up a significant part of the ‘essential workers’ list, through the female-dominant professions of nursing, preschool teachers, grocery store attendees and even hairdressers. An article published by the World Economic Forum has reported: “The majority of those on the front lines of the pandemic are women, because women make up 70% of all health and social services staff globally – yet, women still only earn 79 cents for every dollar men make.
Australian women have also experienced an increase in domestic violence, where stay-at-home initiatives have put them more at risk of experiencing violence. Monash University surveyed 166 Victorian women during lockdown which revealed an increase of first-time family violence with 42% of respondents reporting experiences; while the University of Melbourne says there has been a 75% increase of in Google searches about domestic violence.
The Australian Institute of Criminology has surveyed 15,000 Australian women, the report ‘The prevalence of domestic violence among women during the COVID-19 pandemic’ shows 65.4% of women who experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former cohabiting partner had experienced either violence for the first time by that partner or an escalation in the frequency and severity of prior violence, since February 2020.
And globally, the UN Population Fund has predicted for every three months lockdowns continue, there will be an additional 15 million cases of domestic violence.
Furthermore, it is commonly known that on average, women’s financial security is lower than men’s, with less superannuation, more time out of the workforce due to child-rearing and a higher propensity for single-parenting, making women more susceptible to economic vulnerability, especially in the current situation.
The Australian COVID-19 experience, whilst still unfolding, reveals damaging gender inequality at work and at home. What are we as women and women leaders to learn from this? What are the new opportunities for women post-COVID-19?
I believe there are three strong lessons we can take out of this experience and use to our advantage in opening opportunities for women.
- Women need to empower themselves with facts showing the importance of the roles they play at work and at home, and use evidence to justify pay rises, access to services and respect. Equality has long been undermined by our systems and institutions. However, the research that is emerging from the Australian and global COVID-19 experience is clear – women have played a disproportionate role in the management of COVID-19 – in health, communities, education and in the home. Our contribution cannot be denied.
- Women can use the surge of innovative success as inspiration to speak their ideas and demand a place at the decision-making table. The Australian health systems have experienced major transformation and have innovated quickly and successfully. The COVID-19 apps, telehealth, community testing centres and precaution procedures were all implemented over a period of weeks. What was never possible, now is. Professions such as nursing have traditionally been silenced into a submissive role in health, however their management of COVID-19 has catapulted them into a new light – their experiences are invaluable, and their perspective vital for the future health of all Australians.
- Women make great leaders and now is the time to ensure women are in the right roles for making ongoing systemic and long-lasting change to our political, health and societal systems. When women lead, they make more money for investors, grow faster, and are better to work for. Women need to value themselves and demand their experience and professional skills are rewarded appropriately, and their requirements to rise through the ranks, heard and supported.
Throughout history, women have been undervalued for their contribution to keeping societies running. We need to use the COVID-19 experience as fuel to catapult women to power, earning the equality we deserve, and society should demand.