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Scott Morrison is betting on a shovel-led recovery but the jobs bonanza is elsewhere

State governments have also pledged to bring forward “shovel ready” construction schemes to boost employment and stoke demand.

Governments have traditionally spent up big on transport projects and public buildings during economic downturns. Building infrastructure can lift demand in the short-term and, if good projects are selected, lift the economy’s productivity in the longer term.

But there’s a glaring bias – most of the direct beneficiaries from construction spending will be men. Analysis published recently by the federal government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows 88 per cent of those employed in that sector are men.

A blokey recovery doesn’t fit with what we know about the economic effects of the pandemic.

The data shows the downturn has hit women especially hard so far. Women’s employment plunged by 325,000 in April compared with a fall of 270,000 for men. Paid hours worked by women crashed by 11.5 per cent in the month while the decline for men was a less severe 7.5 per cent.

It’s been a stunning setback when you consider recent gains – the workforce participation of females aged between 15 and 64 has surged by 10 percentage points since 2000 and reached a record 74.5 per cent just before the coronavirus crisis outbreak.

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Rae Cooper, professor of gender, work and employment relations at Sydney University, warns there’s early signs the economic disruption caused by the pandemic is “widening the gap” between men and women in both paid and unpaid work.

One factor at play is what economists call the “gender segregation” of the workforce, which describes how men and women often cluster in different industries and occupations. Australia’s rate of gender segregation is unusually high by international standards. Around six in 10 employees work in an industry dominated by one sex.

The hyper-masculine construction sector is an extreme example of this distinctively Australian workplace trend.

It may be conventional for governments to pour money into construction to stimulate the economy during a downturn but it no longer seems to match the realities of Australia’s modern workforce.

So are there alternatives that might lift employment across a wider spectrum of workers?

New research by economists Jerome De Henau and Susan Himmelweit from Britain’s Open University suggests there is.

They compared the employment effects of increased public investment in construction with the same investment in the care sector, which includes health, education, childcare, aged care and disability care. Seven advanced nations were covered by the study – Australia, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK and the US.

The modelling showed the employment gains from investing 1 per cent of gross domestic product in the care sector would generate more total employment than an identical investment in construction, especially for women, and almost as much employment for men.

In Australia the rise in the employment rate after investing 1 per cent of GDP in the care sector would be nearly twice that of the same investment in the construction sector, including direct, indirect and induced employment.

Women in Australia would gain well over half the new jobs created under the care sector scenario but less than one third of total new jobs generated if the investment was in construction.

The construction sector scenario was shown to widen the existing gender employment gap in favour of men in all seven nations.

“Investment in construction increases the gender employment gap, while investment in care decreases it,” says the study titled The gendered employment gains of investing in social v physical infrastructure: evidence from simulations across seven OECD countries.

The researchers also found additional investment in the care sector was much more likely to draw new people into paid employment and, therefore, increase the overall number of workers in the economy. This is not a feature of most physical infrastructure investment, the study notes.

There is overwhelming evidence that investment in health and knowhow, especially high quality childcare, lifts the productive capacity of the economy over time.

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De Henau and Himmelweit conclude that “social infrastructure investment policies should be considered on an equal basis with physical infrastructure programs” when economic stimulus is required.

When infrastructure spending is favoured it should be complemented by policies to “mitigate their adverse effects on gender employment gaps”.

It’s easy to see why politicians favour spending on building schemes during a downturn. The construction sector is a major employer accounting for about 9 per cent of jobs. It has well-resourced, vocal advocates and big projects allow politicians to make grand announcements.

But the health care and social assistance sector now employs far more Australian workers, many of them women.

Australia’s workforce has been transformed since the last time we had a recession and policies to stimulate the economy need to adapt.

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