Women deserve a bigger role in our economic recovery



It seemingly came out of the blue — a pandemic that sent us into social isolation and the global economy into a tailspin. As hospitality venues shut their doors, arts and entertainment organisations cancelled events, and sporting competitions went into hiatus, recession became inevitable.

Woman reading picture storybook to young children  (SDI Productions/Getty Images)

It turns out that the COVID-19 economic crisis is disproportionately affecting women — so much so that some have dubbed it a ‘pink-collar recession’. Unemployment figures show that since February, 457,517 women have lost their jobs compared to 380,737 men.

Celina Ribeiro, writing for The Guardian, drilled down further into the gender disparity in the recession’s impact on unemployment. ‘For hundreds of thousands of women, the crisis has decimated their work opportunities, and for millions more, substantially increased their unpaid care work.’

Ribeiro cited analysis that showed that women were dropping out of the workforce altogether, suggesting the actual rate of unemployment for women is over 10 per cent. Women’s paid hours fell too, by 11.5 per cent compared to 7.5 per cent for men.

It’s a disparity that Monash University academics Angela Jackson, David Johnston and Nicole Black fear will only worsen once JobKeeper ends in September. ‘The jobs at risk are concentrated in female-dominated industries,’ such as hospitality, retail and tertiary education, they write in The Conversation.

To improve women’s economic outcomes — and support their mental health — the academics emphasise the importance of investing in female employment at this time. ‘The right approach is to ensure recovery programs are directed towards industries that employ women, and to boost funding for mental health care, especially programs designed for women,’ they write.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledged the outsized impact the crisis was having on women in a speech he delivered at a CEDA function on June 15. ‘We know there is a disproportionate impact on women,’ he said. ‘These workers are in the worst hit sectors, in particular accommodation, hospitality and retail, where more than 600,000 Australians have either lost their job or working zero hours.’


"Women... may well be the world’s most wantonly wasted resource. Because women are often underutilised, 'getting more females engaged causes the economy to grow. The data shows that women’s entry into the labour force is additive and fosters growth.'"


However, in the same speech, Morrison announced $1.5 billion for ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure projects on top of the $688 million already earmarked for home renovations to kickstart the economy. It’s clear that the government is relying on the male-dominated trades to rescue the economy.

As it turns out, the government’s love for tradies knows no bounds. Even the $250 million arts package, announced on June 25, was designed with male-dominated jobs in mind. ‘This package is as much about supporting the tradies who build stage sets or computer specialists who create the latest special effects, as it is about supporting actors and performers in major productions,’ Morrison said.

Female-dominated industries had less luck. Early childhood education, which not only has a workforce comprising 97 per cent women but also allows hundreds of thousands of mothers (and fathers) to go to work themselves, missed out on government stimulus.

As Early Childhood Australia chief executive Sam Page told the ABC, ‘a lot more women have either lost jobs or lost hours than men, and I would’ve thought that involvement in early childhood was one of the best things Government could do to protect jobs for women.’

It’s an industry crying out for an overhaul — its workforce is criminally underpaid — but instead, the government made the perplexing decision to end free childcare introduced in March and end access to JobKeeper for childcare workers on July 20, the only sector to lose access to the scheme before its scheduled end in September. No one knows what will happen to the early childhood education sector when parents are required to pay fees, but some are predicting a fall in demand and widescale job losses.

At the same time, the government announced a plan to increase the cost of humanities degrees, which would double the cost of a Bachelor of Arts. It’s another decision that hurts women, who in 2017 made up 64 per cent of enrolments in the fields of Society and Culture, 61 per cent of Creative Arts enrolments, and 60 per cent of all university graduates.

Overlooking the contribution of women to the economy is a missed opportunity. In her new book, Double X Economy: The Epic Potential of Empowering Women (Allen & Unwin), Oxford University’s Professor Linda Scott argues that female economic participation is the most reliable source of economic growth.

Women, she writes, may well be the world’s most wantonly wasted resource. Because women are often underutilised, ‘getting more females engaged causes the economy to grow. The data shows that women’s entry into the labour force is additive and fosters growth.’

Her theory has played out in the past. ‘When great numbers of women in North America and Western Europe entered the labour market during the 1970s, they caused an economic upswing that made their countries the powerhouses you see today.’

While it may not be evident in the current moment, this is not news to the government. ‘Increasing women’s workforce participation is an economic priority for Australia,’ states Towards 2025: An Australian Government Strategy to Boost Women’s Workforce Participation.

This federal government strategy document outlines why it’s so important to foster female employment. Not only is it good for women and families, it’s good for the economy:

‘In 2012, the Grattan Institute found that if there were an extra 6 per cent of women in the workforce, we could add up to $25 billion, or approximately 1 per cent, to Australia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also estimates that closing the gender participation gap by 75 per cent could increase growth in Australian GDP per capita from 2 per cent per annum to 2.4 per cent.’

Unfortunately, it appears the government isn’t interested in taking its own advice — to the detriment of us all.



Nicola HeathNicola Heath is a freelance journalist who writes about the workplace, social affairs, sustainability, and the arts and entertainment. She tweets at @nicoheath.

Main image: Woman reading picture storybook to young children (SDI Productions/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Nicola Heath, COVID-19, pink collar recession, economics, feminism



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Existing comments

This is the result of a half-hearted response by Government through Job keeper and Job seeker. Groups of people, especially women were ignored because "a line had to be drawn" somewhere. It would have been better if everyone unemployed had been supported. The government debt is the community's credit
Peter Horan | 30 June 2020

Women are going to get a raw deal. We can change this by having CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination agasint Women) at the domestic level. In fact, you can legally use it now. I did so in the NSW Supreme Court of Appeal and the High Court of Australia. See my PETITION to the UNITED NATIONS @ https://chn.ge/2Hpu2aa All the details are at the petition site. And it is the first of its kind. Kind regards, Alexandra Samootin
Alexandra Samootin | 30 June 2020


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