It’s a ‘women’s pandemic’ and a ‘women’s recession’

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The gender pay gap is an age-old story. It’s one where the efforts of some well-meaning legislators and labour organisations have made only incremental gains over decades and which has just taken a big turn for the worse due to COVID-19. And the way forward when the repercussions of the pandemic have eventually subsided, doesn’t look much better for women.

In a joint webinar between the University of Sydney Business School and UN Women Australia, on September 3, two senior academics at the university, Professor Rae Cooper and Dr Meraiah Foley, were interviewed by Janelle Weissman, UN Women Australia’s executive director, on both the structural and cultural problems re-enforcing the gap and the multiplying effect of the pandemic. It’s a ‘women’s pandemic’ and it’s a ‘women’s recession’, they said.

Rae Cooper, professor of gender, work and employment relations and a co-director of the ‘Women and Work Research Group’, said: “We are not hearing this conversation in government nor in business. We need to start talking about what a gender lens looks like in recovery. We need to make it an inclusive recovery.”

The employment prospects for women are unlikely to improve much in aggregate from a construction-led recovery, certainly not in the short-medium term. This is despite the fact that some sectors, such as health care and age care, both of which are heavily feminised, are among the highest growth sectors of the economy. Others include tourism and related hospitality. ABS figures to date show that 55 per cent of the full-time employees made unemployed because of COVID are women. But these figures understate the problem.

The annual ABS data on the gender pay gap are based on AWOTE figures (Average Weekly Ordinary Time Earnings) for full-time employees only. This year there was a 14 percentage-point difference. While the gender pay gap exists in all occupations and across all sectors, in some areas the gap is much larger. Some sectors, such as health care and finance, are more like 30 percentage points. But AWOTE figures do not include part-time work, which is also a category where women are more likely to be involved.

Cooper says the difference can be explained for many reasons. One reason is the “architecture” of the workforce leading to discrimination. Her analogy includes the well-known “glass ceiling” where men and women tend to do different jobs in the same organisation. There were more women at the bottom and fewer at the top. There were also “glass walls” and a “sticky floor”. The glass walls between occupations mean that there tends to be more women in lower-paid occupations and sectors, such as health care, aged care and primary school teaching. Traditional male-orientated roles, such as tradespeople and in IT, tend to be higher paid. The sticky floor means that occupations in which women are more likely to work tend to have less of a career path.

Foley said that even within organisations, we know there is discrimination and that is a contributor to the gap. She said: “There was a study by KPMG for the Diversity Council of Australia and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency published last year that found as much as 38 per cent of the gap boiled down to discrimination. That includes direct discrimination, of consciously discriminating against someone on the basis of gender, but also unconscious bias. Very often we know that because of care-giving responsibilities women’s abilities to accumulate the experience, skills and qualifications deemed to be meritorious to rise up are limited.

“And even when women do have that experience and they present themselves in the very assertive manner we’re encouraged to do – lean in during the interview and so on – they can pay a penalty when they are perceived to behave that way. [Discrimination] can account for as much or more of the gender pay gap than occupational segregation. That’s something we need to address.”

With the current situation of the ‘women’s recession’ and ‘women’s pandemic’, Jannelle Weissman of UN Women Australia said there was a quadruple burden from COVID on women and girls. The four factors were:

  • The increased burden of care had been significant and impacted women’s ability to participate in the workforce.
  • Women were over-represented in vulnerable casualised parts of the workforce and therefore disproportionately losing their jobs
  • Women represented about 70 per cent of the healthcare workforce all over the world and therefore were more vulnerable to contracting the virus, and
  • “As we have coined it at UN Women, it’s the ‘shadow pandemic’. This refers to the increased violence again women. The world over we have seen increased rates of violence against women during this time,” Weissman said.

– G.B.

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