The pandemic is set to create more opportunities for women, but many won’t come about without some battles first.
On the one hand, the number of women in paid full-time work has fallen to a two-year low just as the unpaid work burden spikes on the home front due to containment measures and volatile health concerns, according to figures by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
But on the flip side there are glimmers of hope on the horizon that some things are getting better for women.
“If you look at the status quo it’s easy to get a bit downhearted,” says Nicki Hutley, Partner at Deloitte Access Economics.
“But when I look at the next generation and millennials, I can see a small cultural shift in more men working part-time and taking parental leave,” she says.
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Prior to Covid-19 interrupting our Australian way of life in March, men were actually outpacing women in part-time employment growth, while women were outpacing men in full-time employment growth.
While the pandemic briefly disrupted these trends, the good news is that the latest employment data suggests they are back on track, albeit from much lower baselines.
There is also hope that female-dominated services sectors could also be poised for growth.
“It’s clear that many of the sectors that employ a lot of women have been heavily impacted by COVID-19, such as retail, tourism, and accommodation and food services,” says Jo Masters, Chief Economist at EY Oceania.
“As we ease restrictions and the economy recovers many of these jobs should come back, although they remain vulnerable to further lockdowns.
“Looking forward, strong population growth will see increasing opportunities in healthcare, aged care and education.
“Technology and innovation should open the way for increased female participation than we have traditionally seen in sectors like advanced manufacturing such as Med-Tech, Agri-Tech, renewables and resources. We were already seeing, for example, increased female participation in the mining sector, partly reflecting innovation in technology.”
Flexible work and unpaid work
The acceleration of working from home and technology should also provide
greater job flexibility and possibly help to break down stereotypes in unpaid work.
Danielle Wood, CEO of the Grattan Institute, says if workplaces move to more of a hybrid model between work in the office and at home, it’s likely to create greater sharing of the unpaid work load.
"We’re seeing that men are getting greater exposure to caring and other house tasks. I think there is a real opportunity for better sharing in unpaid work,” she says.
"I think it’s a cultural shift too. We know for men that it’s been less acceptable for them to take a backwards step in their careers to become carers at home, so anything that reduces the importance of facetime in the office potentially opens up more scope for men as well,” says Ms Wood.
The other area where real progress is happening is in leadership. There is now only one ASX200 company without a single female board director. That’s Silver Lake Resources.
Pressure for companies to have at least 30% female board representation has worked with women now occupying 31.3% of ASX 200 board directorships, up from 30.7% in March.
While this percentage is pale in comparison to the 68.7% of directorships held by men, the achievement is a positive one when you consider that most of this change has happened in the past five years.
The Financy Women’s Index for the June quarter estimates that if this pace of progress continues, we could have 50/50 gender diversity on ASX 200 boards before 2026.
It’s hoped that by having a larger number of women in key leadership and decision-making positions that it will also affect social and workplace culture and perhaps even solve the biggest challenge for women today – striking the balance between career and family.
Childcare has been one of the hottest topics for young families during the pandemic.
We saw that when the Federal Government introduced free childcare to those who needed it, the positive difference this could make, and it quite possibly aided the rebound in female employment in June.
However what’s needed now is for a continuation of policy like this.
“The government recognised that you couldn’t go to work if you were in an essential service and didn’t have childcare and so they made it free temporarily but it doesn’t seem that there was a similar recognition that working from home was also incompatible with looking after children. And in Melbourne that is where we are at right now,” says Professor Lyn Craig at University of Melbourne.
“So while I’m not particularly hopeful that things are getting better for women, there is at least a way to now argue for greater childcare support, if we want women to be part of the recovery.
The Grattan Institutes is among a number of organisations that has been arguing for greater childcare subsidies to help reduce the “workforce disincentive rate” – the proportion of income from an extra day’s work lost through higher taxes, reduced family payments and child-care costs – for second earners.
"What I fear is that as we return to full fees in childcare that families will start pulling their children out. The potential upside is that it prompts the government to boost the childcare subsidy. We think it makes sense to make childcare more affordable and it is also a long term measure to boost female workforce participation."
Better pay arguments for undervalued workers
The pandemic has also added weight towards the argument that care workers deserve better pay.
“The low paid precarious workers doing shifts across multiple aged care facilities who cannot afford to refuse shifts is another area where women are not valued. Alongside childcare, aged care is a systematically undervalued workforce,” says Professor Craig.
“Australian women often take on part time or unpredictable work because they are trying to juggle home responsibilities around their work.”
Bianca Hartge-Hazelman is the author of the Financy Women’s Index and founder of women’s money website financy.com.au. She is also a proud contributor and supporter of Yahoo Finance’s Women’s Money Movement.