It’s time for a gender-focused recovery

With COVID-19 vaccinations rolling out across Australia, and locally acquired cases low or non-existent, it is easy to think that life will soon return to normal. However, the pandemic has exacted a significant cost on Australian workers, particularly women, who have borne a disproportionate share of the economic and social impacts arising from this crisis. There is now real concern that widening gender inequality will be one of the enduring legacies of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 public health crisis and related economic impacts have widened the gap between men and women in both paid and unpaid work. Women vastly outnumber men on the frontline services in healthcare and education and also in basic needs such as supermarket workers and delivery.

Women have been doing more unpaid work at home during the crisis than men, including child care, home schooling, and aged and disability care, making it difficult for them to maintain stable connections to the labour market. 

A post-pandemic future of work presents challenges as well as possibilities for gender equality.

Scholarly and public policy discussions about the future of work have been primarily concerned with issues of technology and how it interacts with work, without examining how these changes might impact women and men differently. This gender-blind perspective obscures the fact that women and men are differentially positioned in the labour market and are therefore exposed to vastly different risks and opportunities in this changing world of work.

For example, sexual harassment, women’s limited career progression, and organisational gender bias are still critical issues requiring urgent attention. As we see inequalities amplified by the pandemic, a gendered lens is integral to addressing the compounded effects of discrepancy on women’s wellbeing as well as our thinking about the future of work.

The clashing of work and care still needs to be addressed. Making visible the gendered realities of care work is one step forward. Providing high quality childcare and support for carers is another. We also know flexible work practices can contribute to more sharing of care and domestic work, further supporting women’s increased labour force participation.

What we need to do now is to regulate flexibility in employment, connecting it to gender equality.

A gender-focused recovery is essential to ensure an equitable future of work and a healthy national economy. Consult women on the national response to the pandemic. The work now of governments and other stakeholders is to construct recovery strategies that are gender-aware, putting women at the centre.

As we move into the next phase of the pandemic – widespread immunisation and economic recovery – it is crucial to understand the disparate ways in which women and men have experienced this crisis in order to build a more gender-equitable recovery. 

This is one question at the heart of a new research project, an Australian Research Council (ARC) funded project, entitled ‘Designing Gender Equality into the Future of Work‘. This project, which is a continuation of the Australian Women’s Working Futures Project (AWWF), examines how women and men working in retail and the law – two industries at distinct ends of the labour market – understand and experience the transformations occurring in their workplaces as a result of COVID-19 and other forces, such as increasing automation and digital disruption.

Women’s participation in the law and retail has expanded in recent decades, but equality remains illusive. Women, for example, outnumber men two-to-one in commencing graduate roles within Australian law firms, yet they have not yet been recruited and promoted into the highest levels of the profession. In retail, wages remain low and insecure work predominates. Both the retail sector and the legal profession are now experiencing rapid work intensification and technological change, driven by increased digitalisation, workplace fissuring, and employment flexibilisation.

Triple whammy for women during COVID

Gendered effects on employment

The transformations in retail and the law are occurring against the backdrop of COVID-19, which has had a profound effect on women’s employment and labour force participation. From March to May 2020, at the peak of the nationwide pandemic lockdowns, women lost more work hours and more jobs – and therefore more pay. During this period, women’s labour force participation also dropped by 3.7 percentage points, compared to 2.8 percentage points for men, as businesses and schools closed and women assumed a larger share of unpaid domestic and caregiving responsibilities.

Although the gender gap in employment and labour force participation largely closed by the end of last year, as women regained jobs more quickly than men, the recovery is not as equal as it may seem. It is important to remember that women did not enter the pandemic on an equal economic footing with men, and they continue to receive lower average rates of pay, have lower average retirement savings, and carry a heavier burden than men in terms of unpaid domestic labour. The lost wages and work hours women experienced during the pandemic, combined with the early raiding of their already lower superannuation balances, will have a profound and lasting impact on women’s economic security.

Women on the front line

In addition to bearing the brunt of job losses and lost wages of the COVID-19 crisis in some sectors, women have also been at the frontline of the pandemic response in others. Women dominate the industries that have kept working and kept others working. For example, women represent 88% of registered nurses and midwives, 85% of aged care workers, 96% of early childhood educators, 71% of educators and 60% of retail workers. Women have been caring for the nation’s most vulnerable populations and keeping workplaces and the economy running, and risked their lives too in the day-to-day operations during this difficult period. Yet, despite the essential nature of these jobs, these highly-feminised occupations remain underpaid and undervalued.

Indeed in 2019, gender segregation across industries and occupations accounted for almost a fifth of the gender pay gap. That’s because jobs within feminised industries and occupations are paid less, on average, than jobs traditionally held by men. The problematic nature of this is made particularly salient in the current moment, as it’s been exactly these undervalued jobs that we’ve been relying on most during the pandemic.

Regimes of care

Additionally, throughout the crisis, women have shouldered a larger share of household work, including child care, home schooling, and aged and disability care. Through the peak of the pandemic crisis, women performed about 34 extra hours of unpaid work while men put in about 25 and a half – that’s a lot of work for everyone! This extra work was undoubtedly a major reason why many women simply exited the labour force at the peak of the pandemic.

To create a more gender equitable recovery, and ensure that women are able to re-enter the paid labour market and repair the economic scars they incurred during the pandemic, affordable childcare will need to be a major pillar of the post-pandemic recovery.

A gender-focused recovery

The COVID-19 public health crisis and the related economic impacts have widened the gap between men and women in both paid and unpaid work. Women are are on the frontlines in healthcare, education and fulfilling basic community needs such as in supermarkets and other retail services, and have undertaken the multiple challenges of working, learning and caring from home. A post-pandemic future of work presents challenges as well as possibilities for gender equality.

Scholarly and public policy discussions about the future of work have been primarily concerned with issues of technology and how it interacts with work, without examining how these changes might impact women and men differently. This gender-blind perspective obscures the fact that women and men are differentially positioned in the labour market and are therefore exposed to vastly different risks and opportunities in this changing world of work.

As we move into the recovery phase of the pandemic, a gender-lens on public policy and economic responses will be essential to ensure an equitable future of work.


This is part of a series of insights related to Coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact on business.

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