We are hearing repeatedly this is a “pink recession” or a “shecession” due to its disproportionate and severe impact on women. So we need to also think about a pink-collar recovery and a female-focused stimulus package as well as the traditional levers pulled during a crisis.
This is even more critical when considering women haven’t only been hit hard on the work front. Based on the official statistics, coronavirus made personal lives harder too.
Here are some home truths.
If you are the partner who spent the most time looking after your child or providing care to someone this year, you’re most likely a woman. In fact, you’re more than three times as likely to be female than male if this describes you, at least according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures.
And if, when surveyed, you would say you’ve done most of the chores around the house during the crisis… then you’re twice as likely to be a woman.
Of course, every family should have the freedom to decide themselves how to divide household chores and caring responsibilities.
But incentives and disincentives matter – especially upfront financial ones. It is here where there is an obvious opportunity for the federal government to make a meaningful change.
Wind back the clocks to November last year, before the coronavirus even hit the news, and the ABS shared the latest gender indicators data.
Here’s what it told us. In 2017-18, when looking at non-public sector workers, 95,000 women used any type of parental leave compared to 36,500 men. Fathers with a child under five years old were highly likely, 95 per cent in fact, to still be in the workforce. For women this was 64 per cent, many of which would be part-time workers.
Bearing this in mind, it’s not surprising the median superannuation balance for those aged 55 to 64 was also split on gender lines, at $119,000 for women and $183,000 for men.
Again, this striking difference was before the pandemic. What has happened in 2020 means it’s even more imperative to ensure women aren’t forgotten at a policy level.
When women stay out of the workforce there are material impacts on their income and career growth, retirement prospects and overall financial security. This can lead to more reliance on the government for help (particularly if relationships break down) and it deprives the economy of the skills of many Australian women, who are among the most educated in the world.
Women know this but they are also affected by short-term realities such as the cost of childcare. This is especially the case when household budgets are getting tighter and there is widespread uncertainty amid the worst economic crisis of our lifetime.
Thankfully, last week Assistant Minister for Superannuation and Financial Services Jane Hume said the government was working on a refreshed Women’s Economic Security Statement. The last one was in 2018 and there are parts of the promises made then still underway.
The new details are being worked through but this has made it clear COVID-19’s impact on women is on the agenda in some capacity. What remains to be seen is whether this translates into material action to help women get back into work.
So here’s what needs to be at the top of the list: affordable childcare.
The current childcare subsidy structure just doesn’t cut it. It is a barrier to (predominantly) women going back to work for as many days as they might otherwise choose. Basically, the subsidy makes it not worth it for many mums to go to work for the fourth and fifth day of the week due to the impacts on the immediate household budget.
Modelling from the Grattan Institute thinktank shows extra government subsidies to decrease the disincentive effect, at a cost of $5 billion annually, could provide an $11 billion-a-year economic boost by helping women back into the workforce. Mothers’ incomes would be boosted by $150,000 over their lifetime as well.
This would help their career progression, superannuation balances and therefore future retirement prospects, which is another area of significant concern to policymakers looking at equity issues.
A new report from Australian National University on Thursday further recommends maintaining policies introduced during the virus, such as free childcare, rather than bouncing back to the old system.
As ANU Professor Sharon Friel says: “This pandemic is touching everyone’s life, but the risk of COVID-19 and its impacts are distributed unequally.”
She explains free childcare helps children from socially disadvantaged households by giving them access to cognitive and emotional development opportunities. This is of huge importance for the welfare of children (and Australia’s future talent pool). And, she says, it helps the economy. And this is of huge importance for everyone as a strong economy helps improve our lifestyles.
“Free childcare enables more women to return to employment, which makes a major contribution to our GDP,” Prof Friel says.
With so many benefits within our reach, a rethink of childcare must be part of the recovery plan.
Ross Gittins is on annual leave
Jennifer Duke is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra.