Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Keep minding the gaps. Plural.

Aug 30, 2020 | News

Written by Leonora Risse

The gender pay gap – the difference between men’s and women’s average full-time earnings across the workforce – provides us with a useful indicator of progress on gender equality.

Australia’s gender pay gap – currently at 14% – reflects a combination of factors. Gender patterns in industry of employment, the concentration of men in senior roles, and the persistence of biases and barriers to women’s career progression, all help to explain why women take home a smaller weekly pay packet than men.

But with the onset of COVID-19 pandemic in March knocking female-dominated jobs the hardest, while also intensifying caring and home-schooling responsibilities, it’s not just the gender pay gap that we now need to watch. We need to be concerned about how many women still have a job at all.

We need a dashboard of multiple indicators to give us a full picture of the gaps between men and women’s workforce outcomes that are, disturbingly, widening throughout the pandemic.

Mind the gap in employment

Physical distancing and travel restrictions – necessary steps to combat the pandemic – particularly hit retail trade, accommodation and food services. These customer-focused industries generate one-fifth of all women’s jobs.

From March to May, women’s employment tumbled by 470,000. In comparison, men’s employment fell by 400,000.

Although men and women’s job numbers have started to climb back, we have been left with a wider gender gap than what we started with. Pre-pandemic, women’s total employment numbers trailed men’s by around 700,000 jobs. This gap has now widened to 715,000.

JobKeeper has helped to keep these employment numbers afloat. But despite women’s comprising 54% of all job losses in the first two months of the pandemic, they made up 47% of JobKeeper recipients.

310820 Risse Graph Employment

Mind the gap in hours worked

Among workers who still have a job, more women are getting fewer hours of work than they hope for.

Between March to April, the number of women who are employed but unable to find sufficient hours of work jumped by 687,000. The number of men in this same predicament rose by around 628,000.

Three months into the pandemic, 9.4% of employed women were working zero hours, compared to 6.7% of men.

Mind the gap in unemployment

The onset of the pandemic saw a steeper rise in men’s unemployment rate, but this is partly because more women were dropping out of the workforce completely and therefore not classified as unemployed.

In more recent months, men’s unemployment rate has plateaued and, from June to July, slightly improved. The government would have had a good news story to announce, if it had bothered to disaggregate the numbers by gender.

But it’s a dismal news story for women. Women’s unemployment rate has kept climbing, now inching above men’s at just over 7.5%.

310820 Risse Graph Unemployment

Mind the gap in workforce participation

The erosion of job opportunities, the health risks of going out in public, and the demands of home-schooling and care, has resulted in some women dropping out of the workforce completely. This means they are no longer working and no longer seeking work either.

In the first month of the pandemic, gap between men’s and women’s labour force participation rates widened from 9.6% points in March to 10.4% points.

By May, women’s workforce participation had plunged to below 58%, a rate that we last saw in 2007. In the blink of 3 months, progress on gender equality was wound backwards by 13 years.

Participation rates of both men and women have started to recover, but there is still ground to recoup.

310820 Risse Graph workforce participation

Mind the gap in time spent caring, cooking and cleaning

Prior to the pandemic, working women already carried the larger load of unpaid care and housework duties. The pandemic just made the gap worse.

Survey data shows the gap in the average number of hours that men and women spend caring for and supervising children each day has swollen from 2.5 to almost 3 hours.

Women are also spending even more time than men on unpaid domestic work. Summing up the daily difference, the pre-pandemic gender gap of 3.5 hours per week has now blown out to women spending 5 hours more than men each week on housework and household management.

310820 Risse Graph Unpaid work

Mind the gap in stress and safety

Women comprise the majority of the frontline workers finding themselves in increasingly high pressure and hazardous work environments, especially in health and aged care.

And it’s women who comprise the majority of teachers and childhood educators who’ve been flung into the pressures of virtual classrooms.

This is not to overlook the rising levels of stress being experienced by men too. Fathers with young children are among those experiencing the largest surge in mental stress during the pandemic.

Most worrying is the extent to which the pressures of pandemic on men are exacerbating rates of domestic violence and abuse against women.

Mind the gap in policy

Despite the fact that 53% of jobs lost in the first 3 months of the pandemic were held by women, the Federal Government’s policy responses were targeted at male-concentrated industries: construction, infrastructure and defence. This conventional package of stimulus policies reads like an episode of Utopia, where shovels and hard hats make for great photo opportunities but overlook other parts of the economy that are doing it much worse.

At the same time, the government withdrew childcare relief for families and childcare workers’ eligibility for JobKeeper, earlier than planned.

And it allowed Australians to tap into their superannuation accounts. For those seeking this financial relief, this is an implicitly gender-biased policy. Women on average have smaller superannuation balances or no super account to draw on at all. And the risks are not gender-neutral: women are the among the fastest growing cohorts falling into poverty in retirement.

The government’s “he-covery” approach is leaving women out of the picture.

So how do we close these gaps?

Avoiding these gender “blindspots” lies in the policy-making process. Government needs to realise the importance of applying a ‘gender lens’ to policy design and evaluation. Disaggregating the statistics by gender, and recognising that gender gaps exist, is the first step. The next step is to analyse the impacts of your policy proposals and consider the ways they will impact men and women differently.

Consult across a wider spectrum of groups, especially community groups who are most in touch with women’s real-world experiences.

And it wouldn’t hurt to assemble a more gender-balanced team when making these policy formation decisions.

We must be doing more than just minding these gender gaps. To give our country the best chance of economic and social recovery – and keep paving the way for a more gender equitable world – we must be committed to closing them.



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Dr Leonora Risse is an economist who specialises in gender equality. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Canberra and a Research Fellow with the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia. Dr Risse engages regularly with governments and organisations on evidence-based strategies to close gender gaps and how to apply a “gender lens” to economic analysis and policy design.

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