COVID-19's impact on women

June 17, 2020

I anticipated that there would be certain things that both sides of the House agreed on during this MPI. That's partly because only yesterday the minister addressed the issue of how women have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. She said:

Women have been the hardest hit though COVID-19. Our participation figures show that 325,000 women have lost their jobs and the women's workforce participation rate has fallen 0.9 percentage points to 58.4 percentage points, and this is partly due to the fact, of course, that women are heavily represented in sectors with sharp decreases in paid work: hospitality, tourism and retail.

So I thought: 'Okay, there's a certain amount of stuff here that we're on the same page with for a change. They actually accept the facts.' But, rather than acceptance that there's gender inequality in the way coronavirus has played out through our economy and through our social structures, what we've had is total denial that that could even be the case. We had a minister telling us that women have never had it so good. We've also heard in the chamber today the Prime Minister, when asked about the serious issue of women with no access to maternity services finding themselves giving birth on the side of a road, respond: 'Ha! We've got an answer for that. We're going to upgrade that road.' This is just a classic example of how out of date the other side is. I thought they had learned through this crisis that you have to look at the evidence and you have to listen to the experts. Clearly, they have learnt nothing.

There's one other thing they clearly haven't done and that is read their own agency's report. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency only last month—so they've actually had a little bit of time to read it—put together a fabulous document exploring the ways in which women have been disproportionately impacted by coronavirus. If they won't take the advice of their own agencies, we don't have much hope. There is no doubt that, as ACTU leader, Sally McManus, said this week, there is a pink recession happening, and it's being acknowledged in the government's own documents. Women, of course, were the warriors in the home during this pandemic. They were maintaining work, if they still had a job, they were supervising learning at home and they were worrying about their older relatives and their neighbours. I saw women doing incredibly things to reach out to their community.

The Mountain of Joy group in Kurrajong Heights fed people every night, and no doubt are still feeding people who are concerned about spending too much time outside their homes because of their age or their vulnerability. Women did amazing things. Women were the warriors in the workplace. Eighty-seven per cent of registered nurses and midwives are women. Eighty-seven per cent of aged-care workers are women. Ninety-six per cent of early childhood educators are women. A percentage of cleaners are women. A high percentage of teachers who are now back in the classroom are women. They're back in the classroom literally with kids who are not able to enforce social distancing in the same way that we have privilege of being able to do here.

Women were the warriors and that's why they need extra support to get back up into the place that they deserve, whether it's pay equality or equality around who has jobs. Unfortunately, at the moment we've got a government who thinks that it's fine just to do jobs for the boys. That's what we've had. That's not because women can't do these jobs; it's because the government has singled out sectors and given them support—not the arts sector where there are lots of women, not universities where there are lots of women, but construction where the facts show us that there are more men than women choosing to work in that sector. That's the inequality.
I thought it was very interesting to hear Associate Professor Alysia Blackham, from The University of Melbourne, who researches workplace discrimination and inequality, describe the pandemic as magnifying the already existing inequalities in the labour market. She said:

Women were already overrepresented in insecure work and are more likely to be on casual contracts with no paid leave entitlements, so there is no obligation to employ them on an ongoing basis. That's why women are disproportionately affected and that's why we need a plan. And that's not even touching on the issue of women and superannuation.