Support women? Look beyond construction sector & bolster care economy

Women copped a COVID recession triple-whammy. It’s time to put the hard hats aside and bolster the care economy


Women have been up against a triple-whammy since COVID arrived in Australia this time a year ago. We lost more jobs than men. We took on more unpaid care. And we were less likely to get government support.

That’s according to Grattan Institute’s new report released today highlighting the impact of the COVID recession on women’s work in Australia.

And that triple-whammy — at a time when women were already earning less, were already shouldering the burden of unpaid care and domestic work while also receiving less government support than needed — has been brutal when it comes to gains that had been achieved on women’s economic progress.

The latest Financy report finds that 2020 wiped out at least 20 years of positive momentum for women’s workforce participation. It says we’ll now be waiting 101 years for gender equality.

Grattan CEO Danielle Wood says many elements of the government responses to COVID were “inadequate or ill-directed”, which has seen many Australians, but particularly women, suffer more than they needed to as a result of the COVID recession.

Unfortunately, it’s a form of suffering that could compound over time. Especially if it resulted in unexpected periods out of work or a loss of income — without adequate support.

“Policy makers seemed oblivious to the fact that this recession was different to previous crises – women now make up almost half the workforce, and they are overwhelmingly employed in the industries that were hit hardest by the government-imposed lockdowns, such as hospitality, tourism, and higher education,” Danielle said on their new report.

Now, finds Grattan, it’s time for governments to ensure that any further stimulus goes beyond construction. It must include at least temporary expansions of social programs and services. And it absolutely must include a longer-term investments in early childhood education — the key to improving women’s workforce participation.

So what did this tripple-whammy look like?

On job losses, Grattan reports that almost 8% of women lost jobs, compared with 4% for men, during the peak of the crisis. Women’s total hours worked were down 12%, compared with 7% for men.

On that increased unpaid care, Grattan that more women took on an additional hour a day than men when it came to supervising children who were remote learning.

And on that lack of government support, Grattan highlighted how JobKeeper excluded short-term casuals, who are mostly women when it comes to the hardest hit industries.

Meanwhile women who lost or gave up jobs during the COVID recession face an additional whammy if they’re out of work for some time: the compounding impact of career breaks, which already impact women, particularly mothers who’ve taken parental leave. Grattan reports that six months out of work for mothers due to COVID could add another $100,000 to the already average $2 million lifetime earnings gaps that exists between men and women with children in Australia.

Grattan found that mothers in couples, along with single parents, were the most likely groups to leave the labour force during COVID — which may reflect the unpaid work they were picking up. They also found that women of childbearing age gave up study in record numbers.

The report also highlights some of the significant differences in the Federal Government’s response between those sectors dominated by men, and those that are not.

Indeed, it shows just why the Morrison Government must look beyond supporting the construction sector as a central pillar to recovery.

In construction, the sector lost 5% of its work hours between February and May last year, but it received more than $35 billion. But in hospitality, which lost a massive 47% of its work hours, the government assistance received was just $1.3 billion.

The good news is that Australia has experienced a faster-than-expected economic recovery, especially when compared internationally. But the reality is that with unemployment and underemployment rates still high, women remain vulnerable — particularly single mothers.

We are in a very good position to “build back better”, if we learn lessons from the COVID recession and apply them now. “Australia needs a new recession playbook, so women aren’t overlooked or forced to fall further behind,” says Wood.

So what can be done?

The Grattan Institute recommends a range of both short and long term measures.

In the short-term:

Urgently increase the JobSeeker rate and Commonwealth Rent Assistance in order to better support the most vulnerable Australia

  • Extend JobMaker wage to more candidates
  • Offer government-issued vouchers to boost demand in hard-hit sectors like the arts, hospitality and tourism
  • Establish tutoring programs to assist disadvantaged students in catching up from lockdowns
  • Temporarily lift cap on number of domestic student places at universities
  • Offer grants to support in-demand community services

Offer additional stimulus benefits to services sectors, especially those still impacted by COVID restrictions.

And in the long term

Support and bolster the care economy!

  • Make early childhood education and care cheaper
  • Reform aged care to improve living standards for older Australians
  • Establish an independent inquiry to review Australia’s care industries: including worker pay, future workforce needs and financing models
  • Develop training and re-training programs to bolster the care workforce (state governments)

And also: Grattan says Federal and state governments must learn the lessons of this recession: looking at why stimulus must go well beyond construction. They also say gender analysis should become part of budget development processes in order to reduce the risk of women being overlooked.

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