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How coronavirus is reopening the wage gap

Jun 10, 2020 • 15m 22s

As the recession upends convention on gendered job losses, there is fear decades of progress on wage equality could be lost overnight.

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How coronavirus is reopening the wage gap

241 • Jun 10, 2020

How coronavirus is reopening the wage gap

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Hundreds of thousands of Australian jobs have disappeared amidst the pandemic - the bulk of them belonged to women.

Today: producer Ruby Schwartz on why what's happening now is different to previous recessions… and what it could mean for gender equality.

**

RUBY:

Ruby, how does this story start for you?

RUBY S:

So a couple of weeks ago, I was watching the prime minister, Scott Morrison. And he was giving a press conference on essentially the damage that COVID19 has wreaked on the Australian economy.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

We knew there would be hard news as the pandemic wreaks its impact on Australia as it is on countries all around the world...

RUBY S:

And he was accompanied by the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and they were reeling off some of the pretty devastating numbers that have resulted from the lockdown.

Archival tape -- Josh Frydenberg:

Thank you, Prime Minister. This is a very tough day. And these unemployment numbers and to is the prime minister said some 600,000 fewer Australians and a job is heartbreaking...

RUBY S:

And watching this press conference. There was one statistic that really stuck with me. So Frydenberg said that of the almost 600,000 people no longer in work, the majority were women.

Archival tape -- Josh Frydenberg:

Five hundred ninety-four thousand fewer Australians are in the job. Three hundred twenty-five thousand of those were women.

RUBY S:

And I was kind of surprised to hear that statistic I have to say.

RUBY:

So of all of those job losses, women make up half or more than half of them.

RUBY S:

Yeah, that's right. And I was actually doubly surprised because I know that women make up a massive percentage of our essential frontline workers. They make up most of our health care workers, doctors, nurses. They're basically everyone working in aged care. And they're the ones who are working double-time through this crisis.

RUBY:

So how do we get to these figures where the majority of people who are out of work are women?

RUBY S:

Yeah, so women and people who are not men, they dominate in the essential workers industries. But there are even more working in the industries that are most affected by the shutdown. Industries like tourism, hospitality and retail. And it's that figure that's accounting for so many women being out of work right now.

And so I wanted to speak to some of the people who are actually being affected by what's happening here. And one person I spoke to was Hope Rust. And she's a mother of two boys. She lives on the Gold Coast, and she's someone who's always prided herself on her work ethic.

Archival tape -- Hope:

I was twelve when I got my first job. While all my friends on a Sunday are sleeping. They're having a great time. Here I am going to work from home smelling of grease, fat and everything else.

RUBY S:

When she heard about Coronavirus, she decided to move from her job in travel to a new job in hospitality, at a winery. And she thought that that might be more pandemic proof.

Archival tape -- Hope:

And I guess that’s why I started thinking I need to get out of travel -- people still need to eat in restaurants...

RUBY S:

But she lost that job three weeks later. And, you know, she was pretty stoic the morning that she found out she was losing her job. And it wasn't until driving home later that afternoon that the panic really set in for her.

Archival tape -- Hope:

When I left that day, I went, oh, hang on a minute, what does this actually mean for me, what does this mean for my boys? How am I actually going to pay rent. I mean, we live the majority from week to week. So just that feeling of impending doom I guess...

RUBY S:

She told me that when she got home that afternoon, she sat down with her sons and she had to tell them the news that she'd lost her job. And she found that really heartbreaking.

Archival tape -- Hope:

We sat on the floor. We quite often have picnics for dinner, so we sat on the floor. And I just said to them I don't know what's going to happen, but, you know, Mummy, we’ve been through worse times. We're just going to go one step at a time, one day at a time.

RUBY S:

And this situation is particularly hard for Hope because she's a single mother. So the family relies on her income.

Archival tape -- Hope:

I think it was probably a couple of solid months after me losing my job that I kind of got to that point where I actually don't know what we're gonna do. So I guess I was trying to fool myself as long as I could, thinking it will be okay. We can get through this. To that, hang on a minute so there's no more money in the bank. How are we actually going to do this?

RUBY:

Ruby, are there other reasons beyond the lockdown affecting specific industries that can reveal why we're seeing this happen.

RUBY S:

Yes. So another reason that we're seeing these job losses among women is that they're really overrepresented in casual employment. And those have been some of the first jobs to go during the lockdown. And if they're short term casuals, it also means that they're ineligible for the JobKeeper wage subsidy, which really adds salt to the wound.

I think another important thing to consider here is how unconscious bias is playing a role in all of this. It's well-known that unconscious bias can lead employers to, for example, hire a man over a woman, even though they have identical qualifications. So there's a possibility that we're seeing more women let go of right now because unconscious bias is shaping how employers decide to let go of people and when.

We've also seen women shouldering, of course, the increased caring and teaching responsibilities during COVID19. You know, they are the ones who are teaching the kids while they're home from school. They're doing more of the chores around the house and finding a way of balancing both that and trying to work at the same time is incredibly difficult.

And the impact of this downturn on women - it's really unusual, because if you look at past crises and recessions throughout history, you'll see that it was almost always men losing more jobs than women.

In fact, our last recession, the global financial crisis, was coined the man-cession. This recession has been called the she-cession.

So this current crisis is bucking an almost century-long trend.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Ruby, we know that this downturn is already looking different. But what do we know about what's happened in the past in major economic crises?

RUBY S:

I think it's pretty interesting to look at what happened during the Great Depression.

Archival tape -- unknown:

In the 1920s the great American was prosperity. Now the 30s have begun and there is a new word: depression...

RUBY S:

Which was our deepest and longest-lasting economic downturn.

Archival tape -- unknown:

Men are sitting in the parks all day long out of work, muttering to themselves.

RUBY S:

And what happened then is very different to what's happening now, at least if you look at the effects on female employment.

Archival tape -- unknown:

Without women today, the nation's work could not be carried on. More and more women are rising to top-flight executive jobs, women like Mary...

RUBY S:

So the Great Depression began in the late 1920s after the stock market crashed. And during that time, unemployment figures soared and lining up for food basically became pretty routine in a lot of people's lives. Australia recorded one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.

And while men were losing their jobs, women not only kept working, but they were actually entering the workforce in massive numbers.

And I spoke to Emma Dawson, who is the Executive Director of the think tank Per Capita about this, and she said that while the job figures can be attributed in part to the fact that women's employment levels at the time were incredibly low because they were mostly homemakers. There's no doubt that women did begin to work a lot more at that time. And in some cases, they started to become the sole breadwinner for their family.

Archival tape -- Emma:

The women that were in the workforce tended to be teachers, nurses. Those jobs don't disappear and they didn't disappear in a depression either. So if there were particularly young women still living at home, they would end up being the only breadwinner for their family, including their parents.

RUBY S:

And this is a trend that continued through WWII. So while nearly a million Australian men went off to war, a massive opportunity arose for women to join the workforce to keep the economy running while the men were fighting.

Archival tape -- Emma:

Women had to step in and take up the jobs that menfolk had previously done. And so that actually saw a great leveling of gender segregation in the Australian workforce.

RUBY S:

And for the first time, women began doing jobs that only men in the past had been deemed fit to do, things like working on farms, in factories and shipyards. And in all, 200,000 Australian women joined the workforce during the Second World War.

Archival tape -- Emma:

So women did have to get out of the kitchen and get into the workforce and of course many of them were very good at it and many of them enjoyed it very much as well.

RUBY S:

Of course, women at this time were being paid far less than men - 60-90% less. But their participation in the workforce was continuing to grow, and as time went on, they also started to get paid more for their work as well.

And then the other interesting thing is that in the recessions that we’ve seen since WWII, at least until now, the jobs that were lost were mostly in male-dominated industries -- in manufacturing and construction, that type of thing.

RUBY:

Right, so bring me back to the current recession then -- what we’re seeing now and what the concern is about where we might be heading.

RUBY S:

Mm the fear is basically that with all of these women now losing their jobs, that some of them might be locked out of the workforce for good. Experience in past downturns has shown us that sometimes when people do lose their jobs, it’s really hard to get them back again.

The other really big issue here is the wage gap. Even though this has been slowly but steadily narrowing over the years - there is still a 14 per cent gap between what women and men earn. So the concern here is that all this work to get women into the workforce, and to get them paid equally to men, right now we could see that inequality start to open up again….

RUBY:

Mm hmm. So this is a serious structural issue that the downturn has opened up and it could set us back on progress for wage equality. So is the government looking to deal with it directly in its economic response?

RUBY S:

Yeah, Sabra Lane asked the PM Scott Morrison about this on AM recently.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

Casual and part time workers are often women, and many have shouldered a bigger burden during the pandemic...

RUBY S:

And he essentially said that he was confident that through their recovery efforts, which he says are going to involve significant changes to workplace relation laws, that women are going to be kept in mind and will likely get the biggest share of the new jobs.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

And so when you create jobs in these businesses, again on the other side and out of this pandemic, I believe it will be women who will be one of the key beneficiaries because that is what was achieved last on where you can get.

RUBY S:

And Health Minister Greg Hunt said in a recent press conference that the government’s goal right now should be to create more jobs -- again keeping women in mind through this process.

Archival tape -- Greg Hunt:

But what's our goal? Help create more jobs. And, in particular, we do know that those that have been affected by this are younger and predominantly female....

RUBY S:

So, you know, you have to say that right now it does look like they're thinking about these issues, but we haven't actually heard any specifics about what keeping women in mind might actually look like.

We also do know that this government might not be the most adept at applying agenda lens to their policy solutions. You know, it wouldn't take much to realize that if you exclude casual workers from the job keep a wage subsidy, that women are inevitably going to be impacted by that because they make up such a large part of our casualised workforce.

And as Kate Jenkins, Australia's sex discrimination commissioner has said, you know, if we don't put women in the front of our minds when we're thinking about this, we could see 50 years of gender equality progress quite literally eroded overnight.

RUBY:

Ruby, thanks so much for your time today and thanks for your reporting on this.

RUBY S:

Thanks.

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RUBY:

Also in the news -

Treasury secretary Steven Kennedy has taken responsibility for the 60 billion dollar over-estimation of the JobKeeper wage subsidy program… saying it was based on expectations of a worst case scenario.

The scheme is currently being reviewed by Treasury, with the results expected next month. Childcare workers have already been told the payment will end for them on July 20.

**

The ABC’s managing director has announced the organisation will have to make job cuts and redundancies to meet a 41 million dollar annual budget shortfall.

Meanwhile News Corp Australia announced more job losses in its newsrooms yesterday, including at The Australian.

**

And in the US - Democrats have proposed legislation to reform American police, two weeks after the killing of George Floyd.

The Justice in Policing Act would make it easier to prosecute officers, prohibits chokeholds and racial profiling, and strengthens civil rights.

**

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

In past recessions, women have tended to fare better than men. But now the trend is reversed, with women losing the majority of jobs. There are fears that progress on workplace participation and wage equality could disappear overnight.

Guest: 7am producer Ruby Schwartz.

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out, by subscribing on your favourite podcast app. I’m Ruby Jones, see you next week.

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241: How coronavirus is reopening the wage gap