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Opinion

Australia's coronavirus response will not help women back into work

Government has directed money to male-dominated industries

| Australia
Female workers use their mobile phones during a break in Sydney on Mar. 18: women in Australia are paid 14% less than men on average.   © Getty Images

Annie Hariharan is a business consultant in Australia, with interests in gender and economy.

As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn, we have learned new terms such as flattening the curve, social distancing and community transmission. There is now another gaining popularity in Australia: pink recession.

It is the gradual realization that when the country went into lockdown in March, women were more financially and mentally impacted compared to men.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates 2.3 million workers, which is about one in five employed people, were affected by job losses or had their hours reduced between April and May. In April, women lost 325,000 jobs, or 55% of that month's total. In May, this was 118,000 jobs, or 52%.

These statistics force us to acknowledge uncomfortable truths about gender and the modern Australian workforce -- and about how, even once the recovery starts, women may struggle for years to regain their financial independence.

Australia's global ranking on the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Index is poor compared to other developed countries, sliding from 15th in 2006 to 44th in 2020. Today, the gender pay gap in Australia is 14%, meaning women are paid $243 less per week than men on average.

All of this points out uncomfortable truths about how women are faring during the pandemic.

First, women are more affected because of their over-representation in industries such as food services, retail, child care and education. These are industries where employees must show up at work and quite literally serve customers in the sort of interactions which lockdown banned.

The conventional -- outdated -- wisdom that led us here is that women are better suited for service industries, but they will now have limited employment options as the coronavirus-era world reduces face-to-face interactions. When technology companies and professional services talk about their work from home options, it is worth recognizing that not everyone has the privilege of doing so.

Secondly, women make up more of the overall casual workforce in Australia. Arguably, this is so they can better manage the needs of their families -- despite increasing gender-free parental leave and flexible work options to encourage men's participation in domestic work.

These may take a while to catch on but the immediate reality is that casual workers -- in this case, women -- are expendable. They are often the first category to lose their jobs or have significantly reduced shifts.

When women have less access to paid work, they take on more unpaid labor at home, and with the pandemic they have increased care-giving responsibilities but without the usual support network such as schools and family members. They may also have to home-school their children in a lockdown while their partners continue working.

Women may have to home-school their children in a lockdown while their partners continue working.   © Getty Images

It is no surprise that more women in Australia with extra caregiving duties under lockdown are coping by drinking, according to an Australian National University survey.

There are gendered implications of this pandemic which policy makers should acknowledge rather than repeating that "we are all in this together." The Australian federal government's recent policies, however, do not acknowledge them: they chose to provide rescue packages for the construction and infrastructure industries while ending support for child care centers that saw enrollment plummet.

The gender breakdown for these industries is exactly what you would expect even in 2020. Construction is a male-dominated industry, child care is female-dominated industry. Put simply, men have become the focus of economic recovery at the expense of women.

When the government first provided a rescue package for child care centers, it also meant free child care for parents so they did not have to choose between paid work and caring for their children. Although it was a temporary measure, there was optimism that it would become a part of societal and economic reform.

Having free or heavily subsidized child care makes it significantly easier for women to be engaged in the workforce without worrying about whether it is financially viable to do so. Without it, women may become locked out of the workforce for longer than they expect.

With limited affordable child care, we need men to step up at home so that their partners can focus on their careers. This may be more difficult than allocating funding or enacting policies because it requires rethinking gendered roles and expectations.

If there is one upside to the pandemic, it forces us to acknowledge our problems and privileges. Historically, women in heterosexual relationships do more housework regardless of who the breadwinner is. As couples spend more time at home, they will notice differences in their labor, standards and expectations. They may have ugly and heated discussions, but these are needed: women stand to lose more financial independence and job prospects in a post-COVID-19 world.

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