A prominent economist has sounded the alarm over Australia’s underemployment figures, warning that while they depict an improvement for women, the reverse is likely at play.
The latest Financy Women’s Index found the female underemployment rate fell from 9.6 per cent in the March quarter to 9.18 per cent in the June quarter.
At the same time, the male underemployment rate increased from 6.71 per cent to 6.92 per cent, driving a 0.9 per cent improvement in overall gender equality.
However, Deloitte Economics partner Simone Cheung said the fall in the female underemployment rate over April-June likely has less to do with more hours worked, but an increase in the number of women opting out of additional paid work.
“Interestingly, this release of the Financy Women’s Index shows a big improvement in the gender underemployment gap. But digging a little deeper, there were less women in part-time work who preferred more hours,” Cheung said.
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“This means women are not only impacted by economic cycles, but they are also more likely to willingly opt out of the workforce or reduce work hours due to non-economic reasons.”
Of Australia’s 13,147,600 employed people, women make up around 47.4 per cent, or just over 6 million workers.
These workers are more likely to pause their job search due to childcare and family considerations compared to men, Cheung said.
This is highlighted in Australian Bureau of Statistics analysis of potential workers released earlier this year. It found that 128,000 women who would look for work aren’t, due to child care considerations.
That’s compared to 11,100 men.
It’s a similar story for women with other family or caring considerations: 47,900 would look for work if not for that responsibility, compared to 17,800 men.
Unpaid work adds to pandemic, gender equality headache
Financy Women’s Index founder and author Bianca Hartge-Hazelman said that while the overall trend is one of economic progress of women, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose concerning headwinds.
“Women remain particularly vulnerable to lockdowns and the disruptions from public health and social distancing orders,” Hartge-Hazelman said.
“The concern is that the longer the pandemic continues, unpaid work seems to rise and the harder it is for many women to participate in the workforce to their full potential.”
At the current rate, it will take 16 years to achieve underemployment parity and 101 years to achieve equality in unpaid domestic work performed, with this now posing the biggest barrier to overall equality.
Women do 20 per cent more unpaid work than men, according to the latest ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey. However, that’s fallen from 24 per cent in December 2020.
“Social restrictions, lockdowns and home-schooling have placed greater strains on families to juggle both paid and unpaid work,” the Financy report reads.
“That said, they have also exposed genders to the various amounts of unpaid work required to keep home life functioning.
“It is likely that this exposure and the need for both couples to undertake paid work, when they can get it, will be a factor in possibly reducing the gender gap in unpaid work in the next data release.”
However, in order for a major shift to occur, men need to do significantly more unpaid housework, and women need to do significantly less.
“In some ways the pandemic - by accelerating progress towards more flexible working - may ultimately help progress towards financial equality for women,” AMP chief economist Shane Oliver said.
“But at this stage we are still a long way from that.”
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