COVID-19 exacerbates inequalities for women in the workplace

While it will be some time before the full effects of COVID-19 on women’s finances are known, Diversity Council Australia has announced it expects the pandemic to exacerbate the already existing pay gap. Even before the virus reached our shores, the national gender pay gap sat at 14.0% for full-time employees, and women would need to work an additional 59 days from the end of the previous financial year to earn the same amount as men.

Crunching the numbers

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that 325,000 women were made unemployed in April, which accounts for 55 percent of all jobs lost in Australia, while female work hours reduced by 11.5 percent, compared to a 7.5 percent reduction in the working hours of their male counterparts. It should be noted that this isn’t necessarily due to the fact that employers chose to let more female employees go during redundancy programs, but that the sectors most severely affected by the pandemic are dominated by women in the workforce, including retail, administration and hospitality. They are also more likely to be employed in lower paid or heavily casualised work, for example healthcare and support work, which has a 70% female workforce.

Further to this, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, nationally nearly four in five workers in healthcare and social assistance are women. This includes nurses, midwives, allied health, aged care, social workers, and community welfare workers, who have experienced an enormous amount of pressure during this time, being tasked with keeping everybody safe.

Increased caring responsibilities

A recent report assessing the impact of COVID-19 on women found that a greater number of women than men reported spending more time caring for children and adults, while also shouldering the responsibility of household chores and working from home.

According to Lisa Annese, CEO of the Diversity Council Australia, the cessation of free childcare and the increase in caring responsibilities at home combined with job losses have had a resoundingly negative impact on closing the gender pay gap.

“(These) are all seriously affecting women’s employment participation,” she said in a statement. “It’s no wonder that women withdrew more super than men on average, under the COVID-19 super early release scheme, accounting for a higher portion of their already lower super balances… If we don’t act to address these issues they will continue to be entrenched in future generations,”

So what can be done?

Last year’s She’s Price(d)less report conducted by KPMG in partnership with DCA and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, found that Australia was making small strides towards closing the gender pay gap, but the pandemic has done nothing but hurt these efforts. So, what can be done to turn this trend around?

In his 2020 Budget speech, treasurer Josh Frydenberg acknowledged there was work to be done in supporting Australian women in the workforce post-pandemic. He announced $240 million in measures to support initiatives such as new cadetships and apprenticeships for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

A report by the McKell Institute also found that access to childcare would play a key role in building the foundations that maximises women’s ability to work, and this needs to include accessible and affordable childcare and early childhood education for children. “The lack of universal Paid Pandemic Leave has left many women vulnerable to the financial pressures of working while exposed to COVID-19,” the report stated.

From an employer standpoint, it will be important to consider how your processes impact on and support working women throughout this time, taking into account flexibility for caring duties. Furthermore, employers could consider investing in female-focused training, coaching and employee resource groups. Of course, it will be important to continuously monitor unconscious bias and policies that may be weighted against women, as it can be easy for such priorities to diminish during a crisis.