Money & Career

How The Economic Shock Of COVID-19 Is Impacting The Female Workforce

The great she-cession

“The coronavirus is a disaster for feminism,” declared The Atlantic magazine on March 19. Months later, as statistics emerge from the depths of the pandemic, the assertion worryingly holds weight.

With about a million jobs lost in Australia, COVID-19 has disproportionately disadvantaged women: in April their working hours were cut back by 11.5 per cent versus 7.5 per cent for men. Female-dominated industries such as retail and hospitality were particularly affected, with many casual workers excluded from the JobKeeper scheme.

“The way we designed our labour market pre-pandemic means that a lot of women have ended up in part-time or casual work,” explains Ebony Bennett, deputy director of The Australia Institute. “The Treasurer [Josh Frydenberg] said we have to draw the line somewhere. Unfortunately he chose to draw the line in a place that [hurts] women.”

During lockdown, women’s unpaid labour surged, with 56 per cent (versus 38 per cent of men) working from home, often taking on childcare responsibilities. Free childcare was a godsend for essential workers, but now, as the government rolls that scheme back, some households will likely decide it’s too expensive for the mother to work. In fact, women are already twice as likely to have stopped looking for jobs than men. “This is bad not only for women, but the whole economy,” says Bennett.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. marie claire spoke to four women about the economic shock of COVID-19 – and how they’re forging forward.

Michelle Redbourn, 31

“I never thought I’d be on unemployment benefits”

The senior global recruiter (pictured above) for a hotel booking technology site was laid off in April. She worries what this forced break will mean for her career progression, especially if she goes on to take maternity leave.

“We knew that redundancies were coming. People started going a bit quiet. Projects started being put on hold. I was very blasé about it, saying things like, “Oh, I’ll probably lose my job next week!” But when it happened it was really surreal.

I’ve never not worked from the moment I left college. It felt so odd not to be productive. And then I had to apply for JobSeeker, which was something I never thought I’d ever do. I had to keep reminding myself, “I didn’t put myself in this position.” It’s not like I was lazy or bad at my job. I couldn’t even be angry at the company because it wasn’t their fault either. It’s not like they’d made bad business decisions. It was an outside force beyond all our control.

I began going for interviews straight away, but businesses can afford to be choosy again. My skills are quite niche, so there’s usually not a lot of competition. But it’s different now. It’s as though we’re back in the GFC [global financial crisis, between 2007–’09] when there were 300 people applying for every job.

I think a lot about how this is going to affect people’s careers, especially women, because we’re already paid less. If we’re having this break, how will it affect our remuneration and career pathways? Do you end up taking a job for the sake of it, knowing it might be $20,000 or $30,000 less than what you were on before? Or do you hold out, knowing there are so many people out there looking for jobs?

It has such a knock-on effect on everything. My fiancé and I had planned to travel and get married. We were going to start trying for a baby at the end of next year, but having already taken one break from the workforce that wasn’t my choice, what will happen to my future if I take another one?”

Coronavirus women impact

Jo-Ann Wolles, 43

“I didn’t know how I would support my family”

Jo-Anne Wolles is a mother-of-three and sole provider for her family, and is also a member of Global Sisters, a community organisation made up of women supporting other women in business. At the beginning of the pandemic she was stood down from her job in airline catering, and also lost the bulk of her chef work when National Reconciliation Week and NAIDOC Week events were cancelled.

“I was stood down from my role in in-flight catering in March. It was pretty gutting being a mum of three and having all my pay stopped. At first we were told we’d be stood down until the airlines started flying again and that we’d get JobKeeper payments.

But because ours was an international company, it didn’t qualify. They turned around the week we were supposed to get our first pay and said “Sorry, you’re not entitled to that anymore.” So there I was, up at Centrelink like everyone else in the nation.

At the same time, I had my three kids at home. For the most part they were like three little emus with their heads in the sand about what was going on, which was good. But my youngest has autism and the school structure is a blessing for him. I tried to send him back to school, but the teachers said they really didn’t want him there. So I sat down and did visual boards with him, set timers on his iPad and gave  him a schedule as best I could. I also started walking 12 kilometres every day to give myself some space.

I needed that quietness of not having the kids carrying on. All the functions for my catering business, Goanna Hut, came to a screaming halt. As an Indigenous catering company, our busiest times are Reconciliation Week at the end of May and NAIDOC Week in July. Our bookings are made a year in advance and normally we’d be flat chat, but everything was cancelled.

That was really hard on my extended work family. The casuals who help us every year, prearrange with their regular jobs or family to take that time off. And it’s not just about work for them, it’s about celebrating the culture. Now they are left scratching their heads and wondering what they’re going to do.

But overall, I’m trying to take it in my stride. I was brought up by very strong women who taught me that if you want something you work for it – it’s not coming to you. I know a lot of people have set time frames in their life about when they want to achieve things, but COVID-19 has taught us that we don’t need a hell of a lot of things we thought we needed. “

Coronavirus women

Maya Rosalina, 27

“I was forced to move back in with my parents”

With her work as a dental assistant and part-time beauty therapist put on hold, the millennial could no longer afford to pay her rent.

“I was about to renew the lease on my apartment with my friend when COVID-19 happened – we’d paid the bond and two weeks’ rent. I didn’t think I’d lose my job, though; the dental industry was supposed to be OK. But a few weeks later my boss told me they’d have to let me go. They were closing down the clinic because no-one was coming in. It was really scary. We didn’t know when it was going to end or if there would be any government help.

There was no choice but to move back in with my mum and dad. They are great, but it’s strange living with them again as an adult with no income. Once you’ve had your own space it feels weird not to have it anymore. I felt lost the first month I was out of a job. I kept thinking, “What am I going to do with my life?” I used to work every day, Monday to Friday, and it felt like I was missing something. It’s not in my nature not to work.

Luckily, as restrictions ease I’ve started getting a bit of work back. The clinic is doing a trial reopening, but we’re not sure people are going to book in. We are very exposed to everything because our work is inside people’s mouths. I’ve started my work as a lash technician again, too, but it’s very quiet. People are losing their jobs, so getting lashes done is the last thing they’re thinking about.

I used to earn about $1200 a week in the dental industry and $500 a week from lashes. Now it’s about $650 a week from dental and $120 a week from lashes. A big difference. I don’t expect I’ll be moving out of my parents’ place any time soon. Most of my friends are also finding it really tough. One of them had to take money out of her superannuation because she had no other choice.

I know that everyone is in the same boat, but it’s still very hard. We don’t know if things will ever be normal again.”

Coronavirus women impact

Alison Lennard, 45

“I could have lost absolutely everything”

In 2019, the fashion designer achieved her dream of buying a business. The pandemic threw things into disarray, but made her stronger, too.

“Friday, March 20, is a day that will haunt me forever. It was the day I had to tell my 10 staff, “I’m sorry, we can’t continue.” We hadn’t been paid throughout March for the things that were invoiced in January, and I was stumped.

Everyone was devastated but not totally unaware of what was happening. The JobKeeper scheme was my lifeline. I managed to pay all of my staff for March, even though I didn’t know if I would be reimbursed by the government. Thankfully I was, and when that money came into the account, I was so relieved I cried.

I took over Philosophy, the fashion company I’d worked at for 12 years, in the middle of 2019. I could not have picked a worse six months to do it. First there was the drought, which affected my sales because most of the boutiques I sell to are rural. Then there were the bushfires. And now COVID-19. A triple whammy.

I don’t yet know the full extent of how much I’ve lost, but I’m determined to keep going. I’m still doing a summer 2020 collection, although it’s half its usual size. And there have been some positives. Many of my staff will continue to work from home or on flexible hours. The past few months proved to me that we don’t have to sit next to each other to achieve what we have to do. If it works better for someone to be there for their kids when they get home from school and do part of the job in the evenings, then they can do that.

If I lost it all, it would have had devastating effects on my family forever. I invested all of my personal finances into this company. We would lose our home. The kids’ schooling would probably be affected. And more than that, it would have an emotional effect on my children. My kids are proud that Mummy has this business she loves. My 10-year-old daughter comes to work and draws pictures and says she wants to be a designer like me when she grows up.

I knew this situation wasn’t my fault and that it was happening to the whole world, but it’s easy to get low when things go down. If [my business] had failed, I would have felt like a failure. But I’ve tried to keep a smile on my face and be that beacon of hope for my family and my team.

It’s been an emotional roller-coaster. There have been tears, I won’t lie. But at no point did I think, “What have I done?” I love what I do. I’m passionate about this company and the people who work here. I figure, if I can survive this, I can get through anything.

Know the Facts

1 Part-time workers were hit particularly hard by job losses in March and April, and the majority of these workers in Australia were women (224,500 of the 373,800 jobs lost).

2 Australian men retire with an average superannuation balance of $270,710. For women, it’s just $157,050. Women who have been forced to take money out of their superannuation or pause contributions to get through the COVID-19 crisis are compounding their disadvantage.

3 In March–April 2020, women’s labour force participation rate decreased by 2.9 per cent versus 1.9 per cent for men.

4 While the COVID-19 crisis may lead to more flexible work time for all Australians, this may also lead to more profound inequalities in labour division. A 2019 German study found that men who work at home end up working overtime, while women working at home find themselves taking on more childcare responsibilities.

The Road to Recovery

What can be done to help women regain their footing in the workplace? Ebony Bennett, deputy director of The Australia Institute, shares some suggestions.

Free Childcare
The data shows that women were more likely to lose their jobs during the COVID-19 crisis, so they are disproportionately feeling the effects of the recession. Someone like Michelle is right to be worried about having this break from the workplace and then potentially having another one if she takes time out again to have kids. One of the best things the current Scott Morrison government did during the crisis was to make childcare free. But the decision to end that will drastically affect women’s participation in the workforce. Free and flexible childcare would be good, not just for women, but for the whole economy.

Expand JobKeeper
When COVID-19 hit, one of the first thing many employers did was sack casual, part-time and precarious workers in industries such as arts, entertainment, retail and hospitality. A high proportion of these workers were women. They were also the group to fall through the cracks with JobKeeper – like Maya and Jo-Ann. The government underspent on JobKeeper by $60 billion. That money could now go towards the workers who missed out.

Embrace Flexibility
What’s great about Alison’s story is the flexibility she’s planning to keep offering her workers. That’s one of the positives that may come from this crisis. It’s not right for everyone, but where it works and is useful, I think we will see a shift towards it.

This report initially appeared in the August 2020 issue of marie claire.

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