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‘Pink collar recession’: how the Covid-19 crisis is eroding women’s economic power

Rebecca Wilkie is used to running a budget. The single mother of two daughters knows what it is to keep one eye on the bank balance. After being stood down as a full time Qantas flight attendant at the end of March, however, the budget is tighter still. “Life was a struggle for us before the pandemic, to be honest,” she says.

She is managing. But catching up on the mortgage payments after the initial relief ends, and paying for the greater utility bills when they come through, worry her. She’s hoping, and expecting, that after 18 years at the airline, a job will be waiting for her once jobkeeper stops and the recovery begins.

Wilkie is one of hundreds of thousands of people caught up in the first wave of the Covid-19 economic crisis which is impacting women differently – and worse – than men.

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“Some people are calling it a pink collar recession,” says Emma Dawson, executive director of think tank Per Capita. “It’s quite different in the way it’s playing out to previous economic downturns where it’s been men, and often blue collar or lower-income men who have suffered worst. This time it’s been flipped around, and it’s women.”

The economic impact of Covid-19 on women as a group has been manifold. On the one hand, as the overwhelming majority of workers in education and healthcare and social assistance, women’s paid workload has become greater or more complex.

However, for hundreds of thousands of women, the crisis has decimated their work opportunities and for millions more, substantially increased their unpaid care work. Analysis of the labour force statistics released last week shows women simply dropping out of the workforce altogether and suggests the true rate of unemployment for women is over 10% – effectively doubling over April, and higher than around 9% adjusted for men. Meanwhile, the paid hours worked by women who are still employed have plummeted by half more than for men, with women cutting back their hours by 11.5% as compared with 7.5% for male employees. The shift to working from home, presumably to care for children in the house, has also been heavily weighted towards women, with 56% of women versus 38% of men moving their work into the home.

“What this points to is that it is women that are taking on the extra work and care at home for children while they’re not at school. They’re the ones saying ‘I’ll cut back my hours, or I’ve lost my job and I won’t bother looking for one right now because I need to focus on my family’,” Dawson says.

As the economic crisis evolves, it is expected that it will begin to follow a more traditional route, with reduced population and consumption particularly impacting the construction industry and other male-dominated sectors. Men now account for 47% of jobs lost. This however does not necessarily mean that the impacts of the crisis will be ultimately gender neutral.

“We know that in any economic and health crisis women are impacted more than men, even though past economic crises have focused on men’s loss of jobs,” says Marian Baird, professor of gender and employment relations at the University of Sydney. “We know that things like equality programs tend to go backwards after recessions and crises.”

In more immediate terms, it is the unique nature of this crisis – hitting women’s sectors first and bringing with it unique and enhanced care and unpaid labour loads – that has many concerned that the Covid-19 downturn could impact this generation of working women for decades to come.

The disproportionate rate of job losses for women at this stage of the downturn is a simple result of occupational gender segregation. Women make up the majority of the workforce in sectors which have been slain by the coronavirus lock down: retail and food services and accommodation. Those sectors have a highly casualised workforce, and are low paid. In Australia the three sectors with the average lowest median wage are all female dominated.

“Not only have women lost their jobs, they have lost the low level of income they did have,” Baird says.

Given their average low wages, jobkeeper could represent an increase in income for more women than men. However, analysis by Bankwest Curtain Economics Centre found that more women than men were ineligible for this safety net. Even so, Prof Roger Wilkins of the Melbourne Institute expects women would make up the majority of those currently receiving jobkeeper. “So they’re much more vulnerable to the removal of jobkeeper, in my estimation,” he says.

Across the country it was part-time women who lost their jobs in the largest number, but the single biggest group which lost jobs were full-time working women in NSW, 86,000 of whom lost employment according to Bankwest Curtain Economics Centre. Baird expects that of women impacted, it will be low-income and lower skilled women who hurt most, but Dawson says figures on reduced working hours suggest that the hit will be generally widespread across different kinds of female workers.

Locked-in losses

Prior to the crisis, women earned on average 13.9% less than men and participated at lower rates, but those gaps had been narrowing as women’s salaries and participation increased at a faster rate than men.

“There’s a real concern that we will see that [participation] gap broaden again,” says Assoc Prof Rebecca Cassells of the Bankwest Curtain Economics Centre.

Early signs are that gains women have been making are being – at least temporarily – eroded, she says. “The bigger concern is whether these losses become locked in.”

With women dropping out of the labour market in disproportionately high numbers, there is a danger that some of them will be locked out of work for good. Experience in past downturns suggest that for some workers who lose their jobs during recession, historically particularly older men, they become unable to return to work at all.

Over the past 20 years there has been a 30% increase in older women in the workforce, and previous recessions do not offer a guide to what might happen to them during the recovery. Dawson, however, says that in a highly competitive job market such as the one likely to accompany the recovery it is women with limited flexibility due to care responsibilities that find it hardest to gain work.

“Looking forward, I think women are much more vulnerable as a group because they are disproportionately employed in industries that will face ongoing challenges,” Wilkins says. Store-based retail and even food services and accommodation may not return to pre-crisis levels, and during an extended period out of the workforce skill atrophy, losing habits and networks become a problem, he says.

“They certainly are a much more vulnerable labour cohort.”

For women in the middle of their working lives, the looming end of “free” childcare could mean that yet more households decide it is too expensive or cumbersome for the mother to continue to work, particularly if work is difficult to find or wages and hours suppressed.

“I do expect to see more women basically detaching themselves, or stopping participation in the workforce entirely [as free child care comes to an end], if they make that calculation that the cost of child care isn’t worth it,” says Dawson.

Curtain’s Cassells expects the impact the crisis has had on the aged care sector will likely reduce the propensity of families to place relatives in aged care, and that the care of those older relatives will disproportionately fall on women.

“I think there are going to be enhanced pressures on women in terms of their caring responsibilities,” she says. “If we don’t see a pick up in the sectors in which women did tend to dominate before this crisis … then we are going to see participation for women fall more than men.”

This has consequences for the financial security and safety of women as they grow older. Already older single women are the fastest growing group of homeless Australians. Research released this week from YWCA National Housing found that one in eight low-to-moderate income women in regional areas had experienced homelessness within the past five years.

Women in Australia retire with a fifth less super than men, and this gap is predominantly a consequence of reducing their working hours or years to provide care. Women of all ages have lower super balances than men, so the government’s decision to allow people to withdraw from their super to enable them to manage through the crisis could harm women more than men in the long term.

Nevertheless, many are doing it. To make sure she could get through and provide for her daughters, flight attendant Wilkie has withdrawn from her superannuation.

“It was no question for me.

“I don’t need to live like a queen when I’m 80. I need to provide for my kids and make them comfortable now,” she says. “They don’t have to have everything. My kids don’t have everything. I do want them to be comfortable as kids and live a life.”

What the crisis reveals

“There’s that cliche: crises don’t change us, they reveal us,” Dawson says. “What this crisis is exposing is things that had been becoming problematic in our society and economy for some time.”

Problems in the early education and childcare system, the tax and transfer system which structurally favours a household split in which there is a single breadwinner and a part-time worker, and a superannuation system which penalises women for taking time out for unpaid labour all needed review before the Covid-19 crisis, say some speaking with Guardian Australia. Now, however, reform of these areas is more urgent.

“If we’re not careful, and we don’t think really carefully about the policy interventions that we put in place as we try to restore the economy, then women could very, very easily suffer significant effects and economic scarring for decades,” says Dawson. “We need to think differently about how we value what is known as women’s work – service work, care work. We undervalue it significantly, yet the whole economy relies on it.”

Some hope that the crisis may have shifted attitudes to flexible work, and the value of both paid and unpaid labour provided by women, which could positively and structurally change workplaces and homes for good.

“Women’s work has historically been viewed as less valuable and more expendable than men’s,” Cassells says. “If there is a positive to this crisis, I hope that it has shown that women’s work is at least as valuable, and that value has increased.”

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