Underutilised, Underpaid, Undervalued: Australian women and COVID-19 in and after the crisis

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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The coronavirus outbreak has had devastating health, economic and social consequences for many Australians. In paid and unpaid work, women have been disproportionately impacted. Many of the gendered inequalities that existed in the pre-COVID-19 world of work – like the overrepresentation of women in lower-paid, insecure jobs and the uneven distribution of unpaid domestic labour – have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. This has meant that women have suffered a triple burden during the pandemic and are starting behind men as we look toward a health and economic recovery. We urge governments and other important stakeholders, including business and social partners, to construct and contribute to a COVID-19 recovery strategy that recognises women’s compounded disadvantage and applies a gendered lens to reconstruction.    

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Women have been the essential frontline workers of the COVID-19 crisis

Nurses and other healthcare workers are the obvious heroes of the COVID-19 crisis. Many other frontline workers – including teachers, early-childhood educators, aged care professionals and cleaners – have joined their ranks, providing critical services and care to our most vulnerable citizens. These occupations have one thing in common: they are highly feminised. According to Australian government and industry data, women account for 88% of registered nurses and midwives, 85% of aged care workers and 96% of early childhood educators. Despite the critical social and economic value of the tasks undertaken by this workforce, employees in these sectors are undervalued, underpaid and a great many are employed on insecure contacts. They are also in jobs which, for the most part, cannot be done remotely – putting them at greater risk of infection than those able to work from home.

Women are disproportionately losing work and pay

Whereas the last great shock to our economy, the 2008 global financial crisis, more acutely affected men, COVID-19 has hit women harder. In April and May this year, over three-quarters of a million Australians lost their jobs, and of this group more than half are women. Women have lost more work hours, more jobs and more pay during this time. As evidenced in the charts below, in the two-month period from late March 2020 to late May 2020 women’s employment dropped by 1.6% more than men’s employment and their hours dropped by 2.1% more than men’s hours.

ABS: 6202.0 - Labour Force, Australia, May 2020

As a result, women’s underutilisation rate – which reflects those unemployed and underemployed as a percentage of the labour force – is now sitting at an unprecedented 21%, with men’s at 19%.

Given that Australian women walked into the COVID-19 crisis well behind men in earnings – at best suffering a 14 percentage point gap on full-time ordinary earnings – this loss of hours, jobs and pay poses serious challenges for women’s long-term financial stability. This leaves many women in a perilous financial state and suffering higher rates of financial distress than men. 

Women are doing (even) more unpaid work at home

Before COVID-19, women in heterosexual households with children already did double the hours of unpaid domestic work that men did. Early studies suggest this gender gap has widened during the crisis as a result of, among other things, the mass movement of children to distance schooling and the relocation of work to home for those able to do so. As a result of COVID-19, mothers spent an extra hour each day on unpaid housework and a further four extra hours on childcare. Fathers also increased their hours in these activities, but expended about half of that effort, putting in 45 extra minutes on housework and three additional hours on childcare during the crisis. In the absence of men taking responsibility for their half of housework and childcare, the gender revolution has stalled, hurting women, families and – we would argue – the Australian economy. 

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Where do we go from here?

While COVID-19 started as a public health crisis, related economic contractions and shifts are now emerging, widening the gap between men and women in paid and unpaid work. Women are the heroes of the frontline, they are the majority of the COVID-19 unemployed and they have struggled to meet challenges presented by working and learning from home. These facts should impel government actors and other stakeholders to construct gender-aware recovery strategies. Sadly, the response to date has been disappointing. The Australian government’s stimulus package has a key focus on helping male-dominated jobs “snap back”, particularly in construction. Yet, snapping back reflects nostalgia for a past that never worked well for women – a past that was proving unsustainable even before the current crisis. It was a period marked by gendered gaps and traps – increasing automation, a dwindling manufacturing economy and climate crisis challenges. With billions of dollars earmarked for “shovel ready” infrastructure and housing construction projects, the Australian government may be digging holes the economy cannot fill.  In contrast, investments in highly feminised sectors, which represent some of the biggest areas of employment growth and which help take some of care load off individual households, are much more likely to pay off in terms of getting people back to work and in providing economic benefit.

  • As we move forward, governmental and organisational leaders across the globe must aggressively pursue answers to the following questions:  
  • How can we harness – but not exploit – women’s labour as we plan and pursue economic recovery?
  • How can we better provide and value care in the post-pandemic world?
  • How can we design gender equality into the future of work?

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Future of Work
Gender Equality

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Go to the profile of Rae Cooper

Rae Cooper

Professor of Gender, Work and Employment Relations , The University of Sydney Business School

I research across all areas of women’s careers and working lives and am especially interested in the future of work, women’s choices in careers and the decisions that government and organisations can make to build equality at work. I am Associate Dean at the University of Sydney Business School and Co-Director of the Women, Work and Leadership Research Group

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