Justice, Opportunity and Shared Wealth for all South Australians

You are here

Gendered Work and Coronavirus

When social distancing and isolation at home was first required as a response to the coronavirus there was recognition of the potential for increases in domestic/family violence as families would be closely confined and violent and abusive patterns exacerbated. The federal government moved early to increase funding to domestic violence services, although experts argued that more could be and needs to be done.

However, while these family violence issues are in the public domain, less acute but more widespread are the differing and gendered economic impacts of the pandemic.

The necessary shutting down or severe restrictions on a range of industries has resulted in unprecedented losses of jobs. The latest ABS data for April shows that there were 594,300 job losses across Australia, of which 55% were women and as a result female unemployment rose.

These figures make sense in that many of the industries that have been hit hardest by workplace shutdowns have highly feminised workforces and, not uncoincidentally, also high levels of casualisation and precarious employment – often making them the first to be let go. For instance, in retail women make up 56% of the total workforce and 69% of part-time workers; in accommodation and food services women account for 55% of the workforce and 60% of part-time workers.

However, in South Australia the data is different. There were 40,800 jobs lost from the South Australian economy, with the majority (60%) of these losses being male jobs. Bizarrely, female unemployment actually decreased from 6% to 5%. These different results are largely a result of the disproportionate loss of jobs in mining (far more than other states), and the sheer number of women leaving the workforce. The figures show that there were 16,600 fewer female jobs in April than in March, but also 5,500 fewer women unemployed – that is, at least 5,550 women (it could be more as these are net figures) who were already unemployed simply stopped looking for work and left the labour market. This did not happen in the same way for men, or to the same extent (63% of all employees leaving the South Australian workforce from March-April were women). By contrast to the data for women, male job losses in South Australia led to increased male unemployment.

The data does not show why so many women simply stop looking for work but it could reflect:

  • A lack of hope of finding suitable jobs, so they simply stopped looking
  • A partner earning too much for income support so no seeing themselves as being unemployed
  • No longer being available for work as they have to look after kids not at school, or other family members where caring services are not available.

The personal and social impacts of unemployment – whether a temporary stand-down or a final severance – hit everybody hard, but again there are gendered differences. Those with more casualised and precarious jobs (where women are over-represented) have fewer workplace entitlements such as notice periods, or annual leave to be taken or paid out, to help them through. And added to the direct loss of income, is the loss of independence that many women will endure as they become reliant on a partner’s wage. That said, the psychological impact on men steeped in a “male breadwinner” culture should not be underestimated either.

Importantly, the economic impacts on women far outlive the current crisis. Evidence from other epidemics such as SARS, and particularly Ebola in Africa, suggests a slower return to previous income status for women, and related long-term health impacts which (given greater caring responsibilities) also impacted on women’s future employment. Closer to home, we know that the impact of temporary wage contractions are compounded over years, while Australia’s superannuation system insures that interruptions to careers/income manifest in lower retirement savings. What happens in today’s workplace responses to coronavirus will cast a very long and gendered shadow even if the economic recovery is quick.

But the economic impacts of the coronavirus are not limited just to the market economy as women are also disproportionately impacted in the domestic sphere. With the shut down of cafes, restaurants and hotels, many more meals would be cooked at home. Apart from those for whom unemployment or hardship means going without food, the actual number of meals consumed by most households does not change. There is a loss of market production of these meals, balanced by an increase in home production – testified to by the initial significant increases in grocery sales which are the raw materials for household production.

The same transfer from market to the household production applies to a range of other jobs like education and childcare. There is also extra household work from the additional cleaning required for a house full of stay-at-home people, and for many, taking on looking after aged parents and people with disabilities to avoid paid carers coming into houses where vulnerable people are present.

This shift is important because it is women who do significantly more of this household labour. The exact dimensions of this are hard to estimate because the ABS stopped collating household time-use surveys some years ago, but there is little doubt that housework remains both gender-segmented and unevenly shared. In 2016, the Australian government estimated that women did over 2 hours more unpaid household work than men per day. These domestic labour gap figures are inflated by including households where men are employed full-time and women aren’t employed but do most the household and childcare work. But the issue is that this is precisely the model that is promoted by the loss of women’s employment in the labour market figures noted above.

There are no winners in the COVID-19 crisis, but like all crises it shows up the fault-lines of society. While recognising that “we are all in this together” is useful for building community support for taking action to stop the spread of coronavirus, realising that there are differences in how we are in this together is useful for working out what actions to take.

The immediate actions already taken to ensure free childcare, increased government support for domestic violence services and keeping community services open are just the beginning of a gender-aware response to the COVID-19 crisis. In the longer term, as we rebuild the economy we need to address as a matter of priority the issues of precarious work, female disadvantage in the labour market and the domestic division of labour. A good place to start would be for the Federal government to commit to maintaining funding to support Fair Work Australia’s Equal Remuneration Order which has seen significant wage rises in the highly feminised community service sector. But more fair work cases and more labour market regulation is needed to support vulnerable workers. Without that, we will not only have let down those who bore the brunt of this economic crisis, we will not build the resilience in families and communities to face future crises.

Dr Greg Ogle, SACOSS Senior Policy and Research Analyst, May 2020

For further detail of the April South Australia jobs data, see SACOSS’ Briefing Note: COVID-19 and South Australian Jobs

Published Date: 
Sunday, 7 June 2020