COVID sharpens the caring crunch for Australian Women

Women have been hard hit by the COVID pandemic, but the economic recovery has focused on men in hard hats, the Women in Super 2021 National Road Show heard in October. 

Session 1 – COVID-19 and a gender equal recovery

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Women already carry the lion’s share of caring and unpaid labour, and the financial repercussions follow them into retirement.  Policy solutions to address the issues exist, but political action is lacking.

The second virtual National Road Show began with an examination of the gendered economic impact of COVID on a labour system which already penalised women in the workplace.

Professor Elizabeth Hill, from the department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney and Professor Rae Cooper, from the University of Sydney Business School’s  Women, Work and Leadership Research Group detailed their research into the impact on women.

Female participation in the workforce was an all-time high before the pandemic, and  women lost more jobs and hours of work when the pandemic hit, with highly feminised sectors – such as accommodation, tourism, hospitality and the arts – among the first to be shut down.  These same areas are also marked by ‘precarious’ work, with high rates of casualisation.

Care sector ‘incredibly under-valued’

Female healthcare, aged care and care workers have dominated the frontline of the pandemic, not only in direct contact with the virus, but with low pay and little voice in the workplace. 

“The skills exercised by workers on this feminised frontline were critical in keeping a lot of us in work and keeping us much safer,” Rae Cooper said.

“They are nevertheless very low-paid relative to skill and incredibly undervalued relative to the enormous social and economic impact their jobs have.”

Women have always carried the burden of unpaid labour at home – COVID may have seen men do more than ever before, but so did women, further widening the gap. Women’s caring responsibilities are linked the to fact that their alcohol consumption rose more than men throughout the crisis, and one in ten women were subject to family violence. One in three experienced abusive behaviour.

While Federal childcare packages and the doubling of Jobseeker helped many women and single mothers keep their heads above water, they were short-lived. The 2020 Federal Budget did little for women, instead it widened the pay, participation and retirement income gap, according to Elizabeth Hill.

“The thing that amazes me is that this is despite the evidence that public investment in care and social infrastructure creates more jobs for women and more jobs for men. It also provides a stronger foundation for recovery than the same investment in physical infrastructure. The boost to direct employment from a 1% increase in GDP investment in caring is almost five times greater than the direct employment generated by the same Investment in construction - yet we see construction dominate the policy agenda,” she said.

Session 2 – Who cares? A fair share of work and care

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In 2006, Australia was ranked 15th of 153 countries on the World Economic Forum's Global Gender index.  By 2021, it had plummeted to fiftieth place.

While issues like board gender diversity have improved markedly in recent years, those improvements are not reflected elsewhere. Super funds can play a role in turning it around, particularly in the retail sector, Julia Fox, the SDA’s National Assistant Secretary told Session Two.

Ten percent of Australians work in retail, but their voices are seldom heard.  But the shocking results revealed by recent research based on a survey of more than 6,000 retail workers by the SDA and the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of NSW should change that. It highlights systemic problems in the sector.

“The results are an insight into the daily lives of our members, and it's shocking. The pressures they face, the powerlessness they experience, the lack of certainty and control they have over their working hours, and the anxiety and the stress that this causes them and their families,” Ms Fox said.

“They face multiple and compounding pressures - these are low-paid workers, predominantly women, many are single parents, and many have multiple and often complex caring responsibilities.”

“Not even a safety net”

Despite retail workers – most particularly in supermarkets – being crucial throughout the pandemic, they’re not being rewarded, either through pay or working conditions.

Short shifts – of three or four hours – are commonplace. The retail Award lists the part-time weekly minimum as three hours a week. Workers can be on low contracted hours, working 20 hours one week and just eight the next. 

“That's not a part-time job - that's not even a safety net. Part-time work is supposed to look like full-time work, but in retail, part-time looks a lot like casual work, but without the casual loading,” Ms Fox said.

Critically, there also is a mismatch between shift times and childcare availability.

The reality of this was outlined by Samantha, a retail worker who was cautioned and nearly sacked by her employer when she would run home to feed her newborn during her unpaid meal break.

She and her husband are among the 12% of retail workers who work ‘oppos’, or opposite shifts. While one of them is home in the day and one at night, their children rarely see both parents together and spend time as a family. As the main carer for their children, Samantha works from 4pm until midnight and her husband doesn’t finish work until 4.30pm.

“It's hard for us to get care - we have no family nearby and there's no formal care that I could get from my two year-old, because we literally only require an hour and a half of care. No family day care is going to do that - we rely on my 14 year old son to look after both my other children in that gap.  I'm quite anxious all the time when I'm at work,” she said.

“Gender-washing is alive and well”

Superannuation funds need to use their ESG investments lens, and ask questions of big retailers who’ve signed up to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Ms Fox said.

“Just has we have ‘greenwashing’, ‘gender washing’ is alive and well. Many organisations have chosen SDGs five and eight. SDG five is gender equality - what does that actually look like? It's not just women on boards, so what else as investors must we be looking at to tell us the real story about gender equality in the businesses we invest in?” Ms Fox said.

“SDG eight is decent work - more than just modern slavery. What does decent work mean for all women, not just women in senior leadership? It means predictable hours of work, access to paid parental leave, workforce participation, and recognition and support for the care contribution that we make.”

Session 3: Paying super on parental leave

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Women in Super members know the stats like the backs of their hands. Women retire with a third less superannuation than men, older women are the fastest growing cohort of the homeless, single older women are the most likely Australian household to live in poverty.

Many systemic changes are needed, but one area that can be changed quickly is to have superannuation paid on paid parental leave.

Industry Super Australia is campaigning on the issue and Gemma Pinnell, Director of Strategic Engagement and Georgia Brumby, Director of Advocacy joined the third Roadshow session to outline why.

The only parental leave half of Australians can access is the Commonwealth Paid Parental Leave Scheme, which does not have super paid on it - one of the only forms of paid leave which doesn’t.  What’s more, only 6.9% of EBAs provide for super being paid on parental leave, leaving millions of women missing out.

An important equity measure”

“Our analysis shows that mothers have missed out on $1.6 billion dollars in super since the Commonwealth scheme began because they don’t pay super on it.  If they did, a mother with two children would $14,000 better off at retirement,” Georgia Brumby said.

“The median gap between men and women is about $60,000, so $14,000 is a quarter of that. It’s not small change - $14,000 is actually quite material, and a really important equity measure.”

More than 60% of Australians assume super already is paid on parental leave, and think it should be. The key to ISA’s campaigning is to go local, breaking down figures for local areas, having local women talking to local media about the issue – knowing politicians always monitor their local news sources.

Beyond paid parental leave, there’s much to be done to support women returning to the workplace, especially post-COVID, which has seen a further blurring of the lines between paid and unpaid work.

“When we get back to a new way of working after lockdowns, it’ll will be really important for policy makers and employers to think about flexible work that works for the company and for the workers – not one where the women are choosing to work at home so they can do the kids’ pickups, then they're not in the office when people are informally discussing promotions, so they’re locked out of those things,” Gemma Pinnell said.

“And men have got to be encouraged to take whatever flexibility there is. How do we get a silver lining into this and not entrench the disadvantages within that flexibility.”


The Women in Super 2021 National Road Show would not have been possible without the support of our sponsor, Industry Super Holdings.


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