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Heading for a COVID workforce woman wreck

by | Apr 13, 2020 | The Agenda

Many people I know are sick of hearing about the gender pay gap. Eyes glaze over. Heads nod, unconvinced. Those who tend to universalize their own experience might shrug it off: ‘everyone at my work is paid the same, regardless of whether they are male or female’. It’s just not an issue.

… right now the gender pay gap sits at the very heart of the shocking train wreck Australia is heading towards if home isolation continues

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I’ve all but given up pointing out how organisational and systemic barriers impede women’s pathways and progress. I don’t even bother explaining unconscious bias. The only weapon worth firing into the complacency cloud these days – is data. Evidence. And right now the gender pay gap sits at the very heart of the shocking train wreck Australia is heading towards if home isolation continues for much longer.

 When we couple the pay gap with hard facts about Australia’s highly gender segregated workforce, we’re entering seriously dangerous territory. COVID-19 has already taught us that timing is crucial. Which is why we urgently need an honest appraisal of how our current COVID workforce arrangements are simply not sustainable. 

070420 Listo1For the next several months, at least, the nation desperately needs our medical, hospital and allied health care workforces to function at their peak. We also need our social assistance and care workforces to operate at capacity, calmly and productively. Australia can’t afford for any of these industries to bleed workers.

If large swathes of people in these crucial industries start dropping out and stop turning up, we’re in big trouble. But here’s the thing. All those sectors, every single one of them, have workforces heavily dominated by women. Yet, if the COVID lockdown goes on much longer, women will be forced to make some tough choices that will significantly erode the nation’s ability to hold the frontline. They will make those choices because we’re about to hit a nasty nadir: a practicality impasse; an economic cliff. Call it what you’d like. It’s coming.

Frankly, Australia’s COVID-19 response is demanding too much of women. Something has got to give.

In Medical and Health Care Services women are 78 percent of the workforce (and the gender pay gap is a whopping 32 percent)

The arithmetic is simple. Take any two-income heterosexual family across the nation and the data tell us the majority of males in those households earn more than the females. According to the government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the average full-time total remuneration wage gap is 21 percent. In Medical and Health Care Services women are 78 percent of the workforce (and the gender pay gap is a whopping 32 percent). If we group hospital staff, with all medical and health care workers, along with the residential care workforce and all social assistance workers into one big group, then again women dominate at 80 percent of the workforce (yet get paid on average 16 percent less than men in this category).

… whose job do you think will get priority? His. Of course. He earns more.

So, if you haven’t guessed yet where the key problem lies, let me spell it out. And no, this is not about the gender pay gap in these critical health and care industries – although that is obviously a major problem. But the more immediate issue is that women workers right across every single industry in Australia are paid less than the fathers of their children. So, when a couple is deciding right now who will do the lion’s share of home schooling and child caring during this stressful home isolation time, when both parents are normally at work, whose job do you think will get priority? His. Of course. He earns more. This is what Romy Listo from Equality Rights Alliance calls the “household dividend”. It’s the economic imperative to favour men as the primary earner.

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We’re only a couple of weeks into home isolation and already I’ve been shocked by anecdotes from highly skilled friends and colleagues who are downsizing their work hours, shaving off a day or two, in order to upsize their availability to care for kids at home. Most don’t really want to do this, but feel they have no choice. After all, “he’s paid more”.

 Who … will be ‘manning’ our front-line fight against this ferocious pandemic when the women who do the manning are pulling up stumps

So, if that isn’t bad enough – with the longer-term ramifications of those decisions rather awful to contemplate – consider too what might happen when those armies of women currently at the frontline of our health care and social assistance industries choose to reduce their work hours and availability. Which they will be forced to do – for reasons of both economics and sheer exhaustion. Who then will be ‘manning’ our front-line fight against this ferocious pandemic when the women who do the manning are pulling up stumps? What then? Who then?

Perhaps if Australia didn’t have such a widespread gender pay gap problem, and if women weren’t so heavily burdened with the lion’s share of unpaid work at home – childcare in particular – then the nation would not be heading for a serious workforce train crash, in the form of a woman wreck.

This article was also published in the Canberra Times

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