Research from all over the world shows the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women. Here’s what HR can do to help.
For the first time since 2018 the Australian Federal government will release a ‘Women’s Economic Security Statement’ as part of the budget.
The likely cause of this revival is that, while COVID-19 has significantly disrupted the global economy, these disruptions have disproportionately affected women. This has caused a “pink recession”, a downturn that impacts women more than men.
Although the terminology is a little reductive, it does capture the unequal outcomes of the global recession – and there is an abundance of research to prove it.
Women are losing work and struggling to get hired
The majority of casual workers are women, and some of the worst affected industries of the current recession rely on casual work. The restrictions placed on retail and hospitality businesses during Australia’s various lockdowns mean many casual employees suffered, and continue to suffer, long periods without work. Research from the Australian Council of Trade Unions found that 27 per cent of female participants had been stood down between March and April this year.
But even if they weren’t stood down or made redundant, they still very likely saw their hours reduced. Australian women lost 11.5 per cent of their work hours, compared to 7.5 per cent lost by men.
This aspect of the pink recession will likely continue, as Australian industries have gradually moved towards more insecure forms of work as a cost-saving measure. In February 2003, under-employment levels overtook unemployment rates and have only increased since then.
Even when restrictions eased and many casuals could return to work, their lack of access to sick leave saw many continue to work despite potential infections.
Adding salt to the wound for female jobseekers is that hiring statistics for women are trailing behind men. Data from LinkedIn shows female hiring rates took a dip at the height of lockdown, around April and May. While hiring statistics have recovered somewhat, the industries hardest hit by the pandemic, many of which tended to have disproportionate female representation, have the lowest female hiring rate.
Caregiving duties have increased
Many economists believe the reason women make up so much of the casual and insecure workforce is due to disproportionate caregiving responsibilities. The United Nations reports that globally women do three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men. Across the world, 21.7 per cent of working-age women perform full-time unpaid domestic work compared to just 1.5 per cent of men.
COVID-19 hasn’t helped to reduce this divide.
Both men and women have been forced to work remotely during the COVID-19 lockdown, however, research shows flexible work arrangements often lead to a “traditional” division of household labour. Researchers studying flexible work in Europe and the US found when working from home women are expected to carry out more domestic duties, whereas men are expected to “prioritise and expand their work spheres”.
This extends to parental duties. With schools closed and childcare centres losing government support, more children have had to stay home. One German study from before the pandemic found women end up doing three extra hours a week of childcare duties when working from home. In Australia, the Institute of Family Studies reported that many households are moving to parent-only care for their children, relying less on formal childcare options or even informal care from grandparents or babysitters.
In response to these increasing demands, some women have chosen to cut back their hours or step away from their careers. A US study by McKinsey & Company found that senior-level women were 1.5 times more likely than their male counterparts to consider scaling back their work hours.
What can be done
As HRM has previously reported, this moment could be used as a revolution for childcare policies in the workplaces, and HR could play a fundamental role in getting them implemented.
The UN Working Group on Discrimination Against Women and Girls suggests several corporate responses that could help address the childcare disparity between men and women. Universal paid parental leave is a first step, but introducing “use it or lose it” policies has shown to increase uptake of it by fathers. If they take more of it, which other research shows they want to, it would ease the burden on mothers.
The group also suggests organisations work to disrupt the ideas of gendered work – for example, that nursing is for women and engineering is for men. To do this they suggest investing in targeted training for women to increase their involvement in areas of steady employment, which would reduce their reliance on informal or insecure work.
Of course, to properly disrupt the pattern this needs to go both ways. Organisations in female-dominated industries and professions (including HR) should work to improve engagement from men.
A report from the University of Sydney suggests organisations embed gender equality into their COVID-19 response. The authors believe this will help businesses “make productivity gains as well as benefit from the normal insights, talent and perspectives that diversity provides, creating ‘shared value’.”
Of course, private organisations are only one side of the coin. Governments will need to provide greater access to childcare facilities and protect female-dominated at-risk industries from completely collapsing due to COVID-19.
The pandemic has been a pivotal moment for HR and if organisations respond effectively, the pink recession could lead to a more equitable economy for everyone.
Creating a new future means knowing how to embed change into the workplace. AHRI’s webinar Will There Really Be a New Normal? takes a hard look at the future of work and what it might actually look like.