Women's workforce participation has taken a huge step back and that hurts everyone

Women’s workforce participation has taken a huge step back and that hurts everyone

Way back in 2012, in the same year that we launched Women’s Agenda, The Grattan Institute released a report that became a regular talking point in the years that followed.

If we could increase female workforce participation by around 6%, found the report others, we could increase the size of Australia’s GDP by a staggering $25 billion a year.

As Grattan Institute CEO Danielle Wood said during a speech back in 2018: “If untapped female workforce participation was a massive coal deposit, we would have governments lining up to give tax concessions to get it out of the ground.”

Women’s workforce participation doesn’t get that kind of priority or attention. Despite the fact Australia has long ranked equal first for educational attainment by the World Economic Forum, yet falls well down the list when it comes to economic participation and opportunity.

Right now, the situation is desperate. Women’s workforce participation has already turned critical due to the pandemic. It’s going backwards, fast. And it’s going to hurt the Australian economy and create penalties for women that will continue well into the future, and ultimately expand the retirement savings gap and potentially see even more women retiring into poverty.

Women made up 55 per cent of all jobs that were lost in April, with 325,000 becoming unemployed.

When it comes to another figure, that being the number of Australians who have had their hours reduced during the April period, women have also fared worse. Hours worked for women reduced by 11.5 per cent, compared with 7.5 per cent for men.

Already, women’s workforce participation has falled by 2.9 percentage points, while male participation fell 1.9 points.

It’s not just that women have already lost jobs in industries immediately affected by shutdowns, like in hospitality and retail. Or that women are more likely to be working casually, and/or in insecure work. It’s also that women have stepped up to take on more caring responsibilities at home, including managing remote learning with schools closed. We’re yet to see the full data on the unpaid work that women have taken on during this time, but the fact women are 50 per cent more likely than men to have stopped looking for work, indicates that working may simply not be possible on top of the added unpaid work occurring at home.

We can expect more job losses in the coming months, and especially as the the JobKeeper wage subsidy currently being provided to more than 6 million Australians to help them stay connected to their employer, comes to an end in September.

And we can expect to see more women dropping out of the workforce come late June, if the Morrison Government really does end the free childcare arrangements that have been put in place for parents who need it during the pandemic.

Where to from here? How we rebuild must consider how we can drive significant improvements in women’s workforce participation — not only at a policy level, but also at an employer level. We must consider how women are taking on additional caring responsibilities, the unpaid work burden, women’s overrepresentation in the casual workforce, the gender pay gap and the motherhood penalty that women carry well into retirement.

And we’ve long talked the need to normalise flexible work across corporate Australia. This has never been more important than now. We simply can not snap back to ridged employment options that leave women with no option but to work part time, to put their careers on hold, or to stay out of the workforce altogether.

Australia has billions of reasons to directly target the female participation rate as we emerge from hibernation.

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