Why do we have a “she-cession” but a “bloke-covery”?

Why do we have a “she-cession” but a “bloke-covery”?

It’s official. We have a “she-cession” on our hands. But the recovery is not about women.

It’s official. We have a “she-cession” on our hands, but the Coalition Government is planning a “blokey”, construction led recovery whilst throwing the female-dominated early childhood education sector, and the working mums who depend on them, under the bus. Yes, Prime Minister, we do need a shovel all right, but not for the purposes I suspect you had in mind.

At the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 on Tuesday, the Treasury confirmed that this downturn is disproportionately negatively impacting women and younger people, who are over-represented amongst those who have lost their jobs. Much of that, the Treasury confirmed, is due to the structures of the industries most affected (arts, recreation, retail, accommodation), areas where employment is dominated by women and younger people.

Yet, just the day before the government took the decision to ax “free” childcare, thereby ensuring that the woefully undervalued, female-dominated early childhood education sector – until recently deemed “essential”, how quickly we forget – would be the first, and thus far the only, sector to lose access to Jobkeeper. And up to a third of families with duel incomes will struggle to pay for childcare in the new economic reality. Nice one!

The week before, Prime Minister Scott Morrison proudly announced a “shovel” led recovery, with a $688 million construction package that will primarily benefit men. Construction is the second most male dominated profession in the country – and relatively well paid.

Much like the gentleman who politely but firmly told the PM to step off the newly planted grass he was standing on when the announcement was made, I also have a few firm words for the PM — and some thoughts for the rest of us with a vested interest.

How did we get here? And how might this have been avoided? My answer, in two parts.

Firstly, to my mind, this outcome exposes the limits of the nicey, nicey so-called “business case” for gender equality, which in recent years many have come to see as the most effective means to an end. Mea culpa, I count myself among the enthusiasts. We thought we could rely heavily on a rational argument. We thought we could get somewhere by repeating seemingly persuasive statistics like:

  • Study after study (by organisations such as the Grattan InstituteGoldman Sachs) have demonstrated the benefits to the overall economy of getting more women into work, especially full-time work.
  • If Australian women did as much paid work as women in Canada – adding an extra 6 percent of women to the workforce – Australia’s GDP would be about $25 billion higher, according to a 2012 Grattan Institute report.
  • To underpin women’s increased workforce participation, another Grattan Institute report suggested Government could boost GDP by $27 billion if it introduced a universal childcare subsidy of 95 percent at a cost of $12 billion a year to the federal budget.
  • The tax and household income system create workforce disincentives for second income earners, who, in Australia, are primarily women. It is what economists have described as “financially irrational” to put a child in childcare more than two or three days a week.

In short, Australia’s inadequate, expensive, inaccessible childcare system is a drag on the economy and productivity. And now when we need it more than ever– and more women in the workplace — to help drive the recovery (damn right women are “Essential AF”), this Government thinks….construction!?

Given this makes no economic sense (and numerous economists have said so), I can only conclude that it is ideological. Scratch the surface, probe the platitudes about women and work and this Government must believe a woman’s place is in the home. How else can you explain it? All our data, our rational “business case” won’t shift that. We need to confront the reality of what we’re dealing with.

Secondly, many have pointed out that the Government’s powerful Expenditure Review Committee, a subcommittee of Cabinet that ticks off on anything with implications for the budget, is made up entirely of men. And many have also highlighted that Australia is not unique in that regard: The vast majority of national-level committees established to respond to COVID-19 do not have enough women on them. Those critical of the male dominance amongst COVID-19 decision-makers have called for more women in leadership as a means to more gender-equitable responses.

Yes, that is a significant issue.

And I don’t deny that more women at the table would help. But again, I don’t think it’s a magic bullet. I have, personally, been somewhat puzzled by the fact that our current Minister for Women, Marise Payne, has been relatively MIA in this debate.

While some believe decisions like those taken in relation to childcare and the tradie-led recovery scheme demonstrate why we need more women in decision making, I say only if they raise the issues — issues expressly in their brief as Minister for Women — up the agenda.

The Snap Forward Feminist Policy Network has suggested an alternative, or complementary approach. They believe so called “gender responsive budgeting” and an independent Gender Equality Budget Group modelled on the UK’s Women’s Budget Group, funded by Treasury, would make a difference. I agree. Gender responsive budgeting is a process of ensuring all policy options, particularly those related to budget, finance, welfare and taxation, draw on appropriate data to analyse the potentially different impacts of various policies on women and men.

If we had something like that, however beige it sounds, we could build scrutiny into the system, and not be reliant on women at the table who may — or may not — pipe up and say something.

And I’m just putting this out there: around the time the Government announced its early access to super scheme, which Treasury admitted it did not analyse from a gender perspective, such a group might have been handy.

For me, this is my second time at this particular rodeo. When I lived in the United Kingdom and worked at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, I saw first-hand how the Government’s response to the GFC, and particularly the austerity budget that followed, disproportionately negatively impacted women. They just didn’t think it through. I am determined to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself. And — Prime Minister take note — I strongly suspect I am not alone.

Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica

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