Australia must revamp its old-school approach to dealing with recessions or risk women suffering the economic scars for decades to come, a leading national think tank says.
A Grattan Institute report released on International Women’s Day has confirmed that women did it tougher than men in the jobs market and at home during COVID.
More women than men lost jobs and paid work hours during the pandemic as women were more likely to work in the hardest-hit industries, such as hospitality and tourism, and be in part-time or casual roles.
Six months out of work can add another $100,000 to the average $2 million lifetime earnings gap between men and women with children in Australia, according to the report.
Despite losing more jobs and paid work hours than men, women were less likely to get government support because industry-specific job creation focused on male-dominated industries like construction and JobKeeper excluded short-term casual workers.
Women were also disproportionately affected by the decision to exclude higher education from JobKeeper, because almost six in 10 workers in that sector are women.
Grattan Institute chief executive and report lead author Danielle Wood said the gendered effects of the COVID recession were different to previous downturns as women now comprise half the workforce and are overwhelmingly employed in industries such as hospitality and tourism, which were hardest hit by lockdowns.
But policymakers failed to realise this.
“You’re more likely to miss it if you have mainly male decision makers in the room,” she said.
Ms Wood noted, however, that the Victorian and NSW governments had good measures in place to support the services sector.
“[But] the Commonwealth in particular looked fairly old school in the way it deployed those direct fiscal supports,” she said.
“Many Australians – particularly women – suffered more than they needed to in the COVID recession because elements of the government response were inadequate or ill directed.”
Although the construction industry lost less than 5 per cent of its work hours and the hospitality industry lost more than 47 per cent, the former received more than $35 billion in government assistance while the latter received about $1.3 billion.
“The road and rail construction blitz seems to have come at the expense of support for other sectors, such as hospitality, and arts and recreation, that felt the full brunt of the shutdowns and continue to be constrained by border closures, social distancing rules, and consumer cautiousness,” the report authors wrote.
“A clear theme emerges when looking at the federal government’s stimulus package overall: Male-dominated hard-hat and high-vis sectors have disproportionately attracted government support; hard-hit services sectors have not.”
Women who lost their jobs during the COVID recession are getting back to work but many are still unemployed.
In January, there were still 55,000 fewer women and 9000 fewer men in jobs than before the pandemic.
There were 40,000 fewer employed women with bachelor degrees or above in November than nine months prior.
Ms Wood said it was likely many of those women left the paid workforce to manage caring responsibilities and their children’s remote schooling, which raises concerns about the long-term effects of the COVID recession on women’s earnings and economic security.
She said the federal government must invest in cheaper child care, as this would help more women return to the workforce.
“In the long run as well, we think it would be a significant boost to female workforce participation and help narrow the gender earnings gap,” she said.
The gender wage gap in Australia fell from 14 per cent to 13.4 per cent over the six months to November 2020, according to data released by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) on February 25.
However, the data did not include part-time workers or those out of the workforce, and WGEA director Libby Lyons said the improvement was driven by “an increase in the number of men in lower-paid full-time employment” rather than long-term structural change.
“As the nation’s recovery progresses, we may well see male wages increase with little or no positive improvement in the wages of women. If this happens, it is feasible that the gender pay gap will increase,” she said.
Ms Wood also called for better pay and conditions in the disability and aged-care sectors and a tutoring program to help disadvantaged students catch up lost ground, which would create jobs for new graduates.
On the home front, women took on an extra hour of unpaid work a day, on top of an already heavier workload than men, the report also found.
Despite making up 47 per cent of the paid workforce, Australian women still do two hours’ more unpaid work each day on average than men.