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Dear COVID Committee Senators… a late night missive

by | May 27, 2020 | The Agenda

The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on Australian women has been profound, yet largely misunderstood and under reported. Not only has the crisis highlighted the nation’s economic dependency on women’s unpaid labour in the home and as carers, but it has also shone a light on how heavily gender segregated the Australian labour market is, and how extensively women are over represented in the lowest paid industries. 

Yet, despite overwhelming evidence of the negative impact on women, both the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison and Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, have failed to acknowledge either the severity of that impact, or the confluence of policy settings that intersect in ways that continue to disadvantage women more than men.

… women did not rate a mention – at all.

On May 12 the Treasurer delivered a Ministerial Statement in Parliament on ‘The Economic impact of the crisis’, in which women did not rate a mention – at all. Nor did women receive a mention in his National Press Club address on May 5, ‘COVID-19 Australia’s path to Recovery and Reform’, broadcast live around Australia.

Given the Treasurer was alerted to the surprise and disappointment women felt over those omissions, it was reasonable to expect the Prime Minister’s Press Club address on May 27 would detail measures the Government is taking to offer specific support to Australian women.

But, unfortunately, it seems that too was expecting too much. He didn’t.

Screenshot 2020 05 27 19.48.38The PM’s only reference to women was a fleeting nod to “females in our workplace, who have been particularly impacted I should stress by the crisis”, a comment delivered in the context of applauding the pre-COVID “gains (that were) made by females in our workforce.”

Despite dashed hopes for political acknowledgement of the severe and myriad impact the pandemic is having on Australian women’s lives, women themselves are not staying silent. Or inactive.

Indeed, the absence of policy discussion about women at the national level, along with the lack of women on the PM’s national Covid-19 Coordination Commission – only 2 out of 10 seats at the table are occupied by women – has in fact galvanised women advocates and academics in ways not seen for decades.

Within days of the 13 March official lockdown announcement (albeit confusing, as the PM was still insisting he’d go to the football that weekend, before the anti-crowd rules kicked in the following Monday) a loose network of women was gathering online, questioning how these unprecedented measures might affect women? Within a short time, we were also focusing on the inevitable economic shock that would follow.

Many in this group had attended ‘Seize the CSW Moment’, a hastily convened conference organised by the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, at the University of Canberra, held on the last day before the lockdown. This was an opportunity for Australian delegates to the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women – an annual gathering in New York which was cancelled only days before – to gather and share the keynote presentations and data they had prepared for the UN. Along with the Australian speakers, over 100 interested women advocates, academics and service providers gathered for a solid day of discussion, in a powerful exchange to mark milestones in gender equity targets, while also re-imagining what a more equitable Australia could and should look like.

… many left the day’s talkfest with a renewed sense of purpose.

Energised by data that highlighted the glacial pace of women’s progress in Australia, along with bulging ‘ring binders’ of evidence about the overlap of policies that discriminate against and disincentivize women’s workforce participation, many left the day’s talkfest with a renewed sense of purpose. So, when advocates such as Caroline Lambert and the 50/50 Foundation’s Trish Bergin put out a call for women to help shape a response to the looming pandemic crisis, there was no shortage of willing and ready participants. The Snap Forward Feminist Policy Network (SFN) was born online and got cracking immediately. The task galvanised leading academics from the Universities of Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney and the ANU along with a range of feminist activists and advocates.

… the SFN has made 10 clear, straight forward and practical policy recommendations. None are written for media headlines – tempting as that might be.

In its Submission this week to the Select Committee on COVID-19, the SFN has made 10 clear, straight forward and practical policy recommendations. None are written for media headlines – tempting as that might be. Rather, they are carefully considered, nuanced, calls to action that the SFN – given its collective breadth of political, policy and research experience – knows are all implementable. Workable. Sensible.

… this suite of actions could be a significant game changer for gender equality in Australia.  

If taken as a whole, with all recommendations enacted in full, this suite of actions could be a significant game changer for gender equality in Australia. Not just now, during the fallout from the pandemic crisis, but in the long term. Which, after all, is what Australian women want. And need. Proof of that is evidenced by the fact that over 40 leading feminists, scholars and organisations have formally endorsed the SFN recommendations to government.

We cannot wait the 257 years the World Economic Forum says it will take to close the economic gap between men and women in our region. Nor can we accept that women will never move past the sticky 30 percent cap we seem to be stuck at in federal politics.

Extensive research shows that “gender roles become more rigidly adhered to during disaster.” 

The SFN calls for “gender equal and diverse representation on COVID-19 decision making bodies”. Indeed, we want to see it on all key national decision-making bodies. But right now, in a time of crisis, women are hit with a double whammy.

Extensive research shows that “gender roles become more rigidly adhered to during disaster.” And yet, as all the evidence both here and around the globe continues to highlight, it is women who are worst effected and most badly restricted by crisis. Particularly one that relies so heavily on the health, care and education sectors to be the ‘frontline’ of defence.

280520 woman desk shutterstock 1172930443The SFN’s swift action in preparing such a detailed Senate submission and the rapid endorsement it received by key players in the women’s sector was impressive to say the least. Like so many women’s advocacy groups throughout history, this work is unpaid, voluntary, squeezed into the margins of family life, work and caring responsibilities. For most it means sitting up late at night, or blinking at a screen in those dark predawn hours of the morning, before the demands of the day rob women of private time.

We can only hope those Senators on the Select Committee will give due consideration to each and every one of these sound and sensible recommendations.

In fact … forget ‘due consideration’.

We hope they will read with the same kind of sophisticated care and serious consideration that dozens of women – on the shoulders of thousands of others – have applied to shaping these recommendations.

Australia’s 12.6 million females depend on it.

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