Australian women were hit by a “triple whammy” during the Covid-19 induced recession, with a new report from the Grattan Institute finding women were more likely to lose their jobs and do a lot more unpaid work, and less likely to get government support.
The report notes during the peak of the economic shock last April, almost 8% of Australian women lost their jobs, and the total hours worked by women went down by 12%. Male employment went down 4% and hours worked by 7%.
The report says last year’s recession – the first in Australia for three decades – “magnified existing labour market disadvantage”.
While Australian women now participate in the labour market in roughly equal numbers to men, the report notes women are over-represented in part-time and casual work, which tends to be more vulnerable during an economic downturn.
Because the recession was triggered by governments shutting down sections of the economy to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections, services industries – major employers of Australian women – were put into hibernation during lockdowns.
While the recovery in the jobs market has seen female employment come back, the report notes employment levels for young women remain 5.4% below pre-crisis levels, while the figure for young men is 3.9%.
Single parents, the majority of whom are women, have also struggled. While single mums employed in retail and hospitality were on the frontline of the early job shedding, the Grattan report says only 13% of single mothers received the jobkeeper wage subsidy.
The research also notes that single parents were more likely than double-income couples to drop out of labour market participation during the crisis, probably to care for children during school closures.
The government’s decision to carve out universities from the wage subsidy also impacted women disproportionately, because 59% of workers in that sector are women.
As well as university employees, women with university-level education also appear to have been impacted negatively during the recession.
The Grattan report says data shows there were 40,000 fewer women with bachelor degrees employed in November 2020 than at the start of last year, while the trend for men went in the opposite direction. The researchers speculate that could reflect professional women exiting work to care for children during lockdown.
“The Covid recession dealt a heavier blown to women than men, but women also began the crisis on an uneven footing,” the report says.
“The recession came on top of existing economic vulnerabilities for women: women are more likely to be in casual and insecure work, more likely to be employed part-time, and typically earn less an hour.
“The downturn will widen the lifetime earnings gaps that result from these vulnerabilities, and is expected to further extend the already glacial timeframe for achieving gender equality.”
Grattan Institute chief executive Danielle Wood and lead researcher on the new report, released to coincide with International Women’s Day, said Australian policymakers “seemed oblivious to the fact that this recession was different to previous crises”.
“Women now make up almost half the workforce, and they are overwhelmingly employed in the industries that were hit hardest by the government-imposed lockdowns, such as hospitality, tourism, and higher education,” she said.
Wood pointed to the male-dominated construction industry as a contrast. She said the sector lost less than 5% of work hours during February and May 2020, but got more than $35bn in government support, “whereas the hospitality sector lost more than 47% of its work hours but got only about $1.3bn of direct government assistance”.
The latest national accounts from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate the economy grew by 3.1% in the December quarter, which followed a 3.4% increase in gross domestic product in the previous quarter. The two positive quarters followed a record 7% fall in GDP in June, triggered by the public health measures.
While the solid December quarter result suggests the Australian economy is on a recovery path, in annual terms, there has been a 1.1% fall in GDP. The data shows the economic recovery, while exceeding market expectations and previous economic forecasts, is also partial.
Wood says the Morrison government needs to ensure the recovery is broad-based, and provide stimulus to hospitality, universities and tourism to bolster the recovery in the labour market and support women’s participation.
The Grattan Institute has also advocated for cheaper childcare to boost female participation in the labour market and accelerate the return of economic growth.