COVID-19 does not discriminate but history has shown that health crises can highlight existing gender inequalities.
Women workers in Australia are the most financially affected by COVID-19 shutdown by nature of their jobs and the roles they play in these jobs. Women workers are also facing higher stress levels from taking on additional responsibilities at work and at home.
Women workers are more likely to experience financial hardships than men in COVID-19 pandemic.
Gender segregation in certain sectors and over-representation of women in some vulnerable sectors mean women are more likely to lose their jobs in the pandemic crisis.
Data shows women in Australia experienced a greater reduction in work hours than men in April this year. The labour force participation rate of women decreased by 2.9 percent compared to men’s labour force at 1.9 percent. The reason for this disparity is because many of the sectors most affected by the virus (for example, hospitality, entertainment, travel, retail and personal care) employ more women than men. Women are more vulnerable to financial hardship because many of them work as casuals without the security of paid leave.
Women already earn less than their male counterparts in Australia. The national pay gap stands at 13.9%. The national pay gap is the difference between women’s and men’s average weekly full-time earnings expressed as a percentage of men’s earning. Women workers in Australia are further confounded by higher poverty rate, single-parent responsibilities and fewer savings.
There is further evidence to suggest that small to medium women-led enterprises may never be able to recover from hibernation. These companies generally operate on small capitals and are self-funding.
Women are taking on a ‘triple load’ during COVID-19
Women are taking on a ‘triple load’ since the coronavirus shutdown including paid work, care work and mental stress of worrying.
Women make up 47.4% of the total labour force in Australia. Of this, 25.8% are full-time workers and 21.6% are part-timers (ABS: 2020, Labour Force).
More women than men working in the healthcare sector. Up to 70% of health care and social workers in the world are female. In Australia, 75.4% of our healthcare professionals are women. Women also make up a large proportion of healthcare support services for example cleaning, catering and laundry services.
It follows that a health emergency will impact more women workers than men workers. More women in the frontline during COVID-19 crisis meant an increase in the risk of infection to women and their families. According to a report by the UN, infection rates in women healthcare workers were significantly higher than that of male healthcare workers. For example, Spain recorded 71.8% of women healthcare workers were infected compared to only 28.2% of men. In Italy, 66% of women healthcare workers were infected compared to 34% men.
Additionally, coronavirus shutdown has increased women’s care responsibilities at home. In Australia, women were spending up to 64.4% of their average working hours each week on unpaid work. Most of this work involves caring for children and household chores. Women also took on the responsibilities of educators when schools were forced to close. This was true even in dual-earning income households. Men – to their credit – have also taken on household responsibilities in the pandemic but they are not spending as much time as women on these duties.
With the added responsibilities of working from home, caring for the family and taking on the role of educator, women workers have expressed feeling increased personal and professional stress as a result of COVID-19.
Why we should care?
Women are also the principal carer in the home. Women in the workforce tend to invest their earnings into their households. A decline in income and financial security can have outgoing effects for the family. If mothers are stressed and worried, they cannot provide proper care to their families. Children can be affected as a result.
If women workers stay home, the financial burden on some families could have negative consequences, for example, an increase in domestic violence.
Gender pay inequality drivers
KPMG 2019 ‘She’s Price(d)less’ Report identified several key drivers to bridge the gender pay gap including:
Gender discrimination is the single biggest driver of the gender pay gap in Australia.
Addressing the gender issue should be a policy matter – particularly for the private sector. Fixing a gender bias culture is equally important.
Care, family responsibilities and workplace participation
Part-time roles: Women make up the largest part-time workforce in the country. Addressing employer bias against promoting part-time hires may help narrow the gap.
Unpaid work: Women traditionally contribute longer unpaid hours of work at home than their spouses. Changing mindsets about household responsibilities and childcare can help reduce the gender pay gap.
Supporting women in the workforce post coronavirus
To bridge the gender inequality gap in our country we will need to change gender and workplace norms. Here are some strategies, employers can adopt post-pandemic:
1. Extend flexible working from home arrangements
2. Create new positions to cater for women workers
One of the silver linings from the coronavirus was the discovery that business activities do not need to be carried out between 9 am to 5 pm daily. With the right systems in place, staff can be equally productive outside normal business hours.
In the future, organisations can consider creating more casual positions for professional women who prefer to work on a part-time or casual basis from the home.
3. Consider staggered hours that include family commitments
Staggered hours are coming. Employers are already suggesting that staff come to the office at different times of the day. Companies can attract more women into their workforce by creating schedules that can incorporate family commitments.
It is evident people need time away from home as well, this applies to women as well. To decrease their personal and professional stress, allow them to come into work following a schedule as we know they are capable of sticking to it.
4. Address gender discrimination in the workplace
Gender discrimination in the workplace is unhealthy. The most effective way to address this problem is through hiring, promotion and training. If your industry sector does not traditionally hire women, be different by deliberately having an organisational policy to include women workers in the team.
Pay inequality cannot be reduced unless employers are transparent about their pay structures. Organisations that are serious about women’s equality in the workplace should have pay audits of all staff. That way, any discrepancies in pay can be addressed.
Organisations will also need more women in leadership roles to narrow the pay gap.
Set out a strategy to promote more women by having set targets, quotas and diversity policy.
5. Remove gender bias culture
Stem out systemic discrimination in the workplace through education and training. Focus groups, networks and advocacy can promote good organisational culture.
6. Promote family-friendly policies
An organisation that supports its women workers must demonstrate that they are serious about gender inequality in the workplace. The single most important thing for many women in the workforce is the family. Parental leave, childcare and special permission to look after a child can make it easier for women to work.
7. Childcare is the key
The pandemic has highlighted how women workers in Australia have been disproportionately disadvantaged. Some of the reforms may require government investment.
For example, wages in female-dominated industries like childcare and healthcare can benefit from a stimulus package.
The free childcare package offered to parents because of COVID-19 is likely to end soon but continuing this is an obvious way to improving gender pay inequality in the country. Currently, the high costs associated with putting a child in day care makes it economically unviable for many women to return to work.
Australia is at its highest pay gap for over two decades now. It’s time to change.
Note from the author:
The facts and figures used in this report were taken from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA). WGEA (2020). ‘Gendered impact of COVID-19’. Retrieved from: https://www.wgea.gov.au/topics/gendered-impact-of-covid-19
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As a business, HR and career strategist, Thai Ngo has worked with some of the biggest businesses in Australia to help people fulfil their professional potential. Thai firmly believes that the biggest barrier to success is often ourselves, but with the right guidance and the right perspective, that barrier can be overcome. Now he works with businesses, leaders and individuals to tap into their existing talent to create the professional and personal life they desire.