Way back on March 25, Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi spoke about the gendered nature of the COVID-19 crisis.
She spoke about those on the frontline of the public health crisis being mostly women: nurses, teachers, early childcare educators, aged-care workers. And raised concerns about the safety of women during isolation.
Needless to say, certain segments of the media had a field day with Senator Faruqi daring to take a gendered lens to the impact of the pandemic.
In fact, it’s incredible to see just how many words Senator Faruqi’s comments inspired from the Murdoch-owned press. Columnists described Senator Faruqi as everything from “pretty confused” to being a “watermelon Senator” and an opportunity as someone to laugh about during these “tough times”.
Yet here we are. Research from Monash University has found an increase in frequency and severity of violence against women during lockdown. High risk sectors dominated by women continued to operate during the shutdown period, exposing numerous women to the virus. Women, it’s widely believed (although we’re yet to see the hard data), took on the majority of the remote learning and additional caring responsibilities during lockdowns.
And now we have Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirming in Question Time himself that women and young people have been hit hardest by job losses in Australia, following last week’s Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 that confirmed the downturn is disproportionately impacting these groups.
Women accounted for 52% of job losses in May according to figures released yesterday, after taking 55% of those job losses in April. And that’s only considering those who are actively looking for work. How many women have been unable to look for work due to increased caring commitments? How many will be unable to take up additional days, or even to look for work at all, due to the costs of childcare?
Women’s workforce participation is currently going backwards – after years of work to close the gap. And this is only just the beginning. We can expect the workforce participation gap to drop again as childcare fees return next month, and in September again as millions of Australians come off the JobKeeper.
This is, as our regular contributor Kristine Ziwica has noted, a ‘she-cession’, but for some reason we’re seeing a ‘bloke-covery’ with Morrison favouring the male-dominated construction sector for recovery, just as they pull out the support for early childhood education that parents have been relying on.
Early last week when I spoke to Senator Mehreen Faruqi — when she noted she was bringing these concerns up as early as March — she spoke about the opportunity to “reimagine everything” during this recovery. “We cannot go back to the world we were in, post the pandemic. I think it’s fair to say COVID has already exposed existing cracks and then exacerbated them.”
She noted that as we rebuild, we must make sure women and women’s rights organisations are front and centre, and we must acknowledge the huge diversity of women and their needs.
Australia has, so far, failed to adequately include women’s voices in our COVID-19 response, and it shows in the construction package, the childcare ‘snap back’ and the early-access superannuation scheme, among other things. We’re not alone. As CARE Australia research of 30 countries revealed last week, women make up an average of just 24 per cent of members on committees designed to respond to COVID-19. Just one country (Canada) was found to have a gender-balanced committee.
I fear the opportunity we may have had to imagine something different, has already been squandered, even as the figures become clear on how this pandemic will widen existing inequalities.
But it may just be worse. As Dr Neela Janakiramanan shared on Women’s Agenda yesterday following Morrison’s suggestion that a highway upgrade could be a ‘solution’ to women giving birth on the side of the road, we’re seeing deep contempt by the Prime Minister for women in Australia.
We’ll be keeping the gendered impact of COVID-19 high on the agenda on Women’s Agenda, thanks to the support of a grant from The Judith Neilson Institute. Stay tuned for the first of these weekly investigations next week.