Workplace gender equality: Where to next?

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  • Published Date: 24 August 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed gendered labour market inequalities in Australia and around the world. Women were disproportionately exposed to the virus at work, as frontline workers in ‘essential’ industries and occupations. Women also experienced greater job losses as workers in industries most affected by business closures and government-mandated lockdowns.

An article in the Journal of Industrial Relations:

  • examines the impact of the pandemic on women in the workplace.
  • identifies five areas where action is urgently required to create a more equitable post-pandemic recovery.

Where are we now?

Women’s employment and labour force participation

Unlike previous recessions, which have affected men more severely than women, the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic hit women harder than men. In the early months of the pandemic in Australia, between March and May 2020, more than 800,000 workers lost their jobs. Women accounted for 54 per cent of that number.

Women are overrepresented in part-time and casual employment in service sectors hardest hit by business closures and pandemic-related shutdowns. This includes retail, accommodation and food services. As a result, women experienced much sharper drops in their working hours and pay than men. In the three months to May 2020, women experienced a 10.8 per cent drop in their working hours, compared to 7.5 per cent for men.

The (under)valuation of feminised industries and occupations

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed chronic gender segregations in the workforce. Women are overrepresented among many of the industries and occupations deemed ‘essential’ to the functioning of the economy and society through the crisis. In Australia, as elsewhere, women comprised a majority of the workers risking their lives to provide health care, early childhood care and education, retail labour and other essential services.

At the onset of the pandemic, women accounted for 88 per cent of registered nurses and midwives, 85 per cent of aged care workers, 96 per cent of early childhood educators and 55 per cent of retail, food and accommodation services workers in Australia.

The impact of gendered violence

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the risks and vulnerabilities women face from gender-based violence. Various analyses have revealed a sharp rise in the incidence of domestic violence following the introduction of stay-at-home orders and lockdowns around the world.

In Australia, a survey of 15,000 women conducted in May 2020 found that 4.6 per cent of respondents had experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former cohabiting partner in the three months from the onset of the pandemic. Of those respondents, two-thirds said that the violence had either started or intensified during that time. Many respondents also reported that safety concerns were a barrier to seeking help during the pandemic.

Where to next?

The article identifies five themes to inform a more gender-equitable post-pandemic labour market:

  1. Addressing gender-based labour market segregations and discrimination.
  2. Building access to mutually beneficial flexibility.
  3. Ensuring a more gender-equitable distribution of unpaid care.
  4. Confronting gender-based violence at work and beyond.
  5. Mobilising union agency through gender equality bargaining.

Addressing gender-based segregation and discrimination

Highly feminised jobs are undervalued and underpaid, and women struggle to access and progress within more lucrative, male-dominated spheres. Jobs in these sectors are growing faster than in any other, and are marked by precarity, low wages, weak career paths and low levels of workplace voice.

Governments are increasingly at a distance from marketised employment relationships that suppress wages and conditions, even though they are also the principal architects, funders and managers of public health systems. The COVID-19 crisis creates an opportunity to bring the state back into the sector to rebuild accountability, restore public trust, and build and sustain good jobs.

Building mutually beneficial flexibility

Workers in contingent, flexible employment relationships were among those most profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Building access to mutually beneficial flexibility assists employers to meet their operational requirements while enabling employees to balance work and non-work activities. This is a foundation for sustainable careers and gender equality at work.

More gender equal sharing of unpaid work

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the chasm between men’s and women’s contribution to unpaid care work, and the obstacle this presents to women’s full and equal participation in the labour market. Gender norms in relation to who works and who cares remain surprisingly sticky and are unlikely to shift without regulatory intervention.

Confronting gender-based violence at work and beyond

It is difficult to avoid discussing the pervasive and pernicious problem of gender-based violence in work, community and society in 2021 in Australia. The article cites a case study of an innovative initiative in Aotearoa-New Zealand which increased the responsibility of employers to safeguard employees. To reduce the threat of gendered violence, the issue must be moved from a ‘private’ framing into the public and workplace sphere.

Mobilising union agency through gender equality bargaining

The paper notes that trade unions and collective bargaining have been powerful forces for positive change for working women. Equality bargaining is a key mechanism to build gender equality at work yet remains an underdeveloped union activity.

The bottom line

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed and accentuated many longstanding gendered inequalities in the labour market. However, there is an opportunity to achieve workplace gender equality in the post-pandemic era.

Want to read more?

Workplace gender equality in the post-pandemic era: Where to next? - Meraiah Foley & Rae Cooper, Journal of Industrial Relations, August 2021

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