The COVID-19 pandemic has renewed the ongoing discussion of diversity in STEM with concerns that the health crisis will further entrench or widen the under-representation of women and other groups in STEM fields. Diversity is crucial to the continued expansion and success of STEM and in turn, the capacity of STEM to drive productivity growth. The optimal approach to recovery from the pandemic will be to invest in initiatives which have the potential to contribute to business and economic growth while advancing women’s progress.[i]
Responses to the recession include a rise in unemployment and underemployment rates, a fall in hours worked and a fall in workforce participation and the initial evidence suggests that the employment of women has fallen more sharply then men, a higher proportion of women have experienced unemployment and the workforce participation rate of women fell more than for men.
ABS figures show that to date job losses have impacted men and women differently. Overall employment was down by 7.5 per cent between 14 March and 18 April – while female employment dropped by 8.1 per cent, male employment dropped by 6.2 per cent.[ii] According to a recent report on the impact of COVID-19 on women in STEM, Australia’s scientific and technical services industry recorded job losses of 5.6% from mid-March to mid-April 2020, with jobs down 6.3 per cent for women compared to 4.8 per cent for men.[iii] More recent data is suggesting that the differential in impact on job losses has narrowed and is now very similar with resilience shown in female-dominated fields such as healthcare and education.
Underemployment/loss of hours
Statistics also show that to date women have been impacted more than men in terms of working hours, losing 11.5 per cent of the hours worked in March, compared to men who lost 7.5 per cent.
In the past month the labour force participation rate fell by 2.5 percentage points and again, the impact has been greater on women with an extra 2.9 per cent of women out of the labour force compared to an extra 2.1 per cent of men.[iv]Time will tell whether this is a temporary disruption that will reverse when the pandemic recedes or whether it involves longer-term structural change. Affordable and geographically accessible childcare is the key determinant of workforce participation for women (see below).
Overrepresentation of women in industries most affected
Women are overrepresented in the industries most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic including food and accommodation services, the arts and recreation fields and health services. 75 per cent of health professionals many of which were deemed to be essential services are women – including pharmacists and medical scientists. Women are also over-represented in casual and short-term contract employment and because more women are more likely to have been working in short-term roles for less than 12 months, they are also more likely to be over-represented in those ineligible to receive JobKeeper.
In the university sector, women are more likely be part of the increasingly casualised academic workforce where job losses have been high as well as over-represented in job losses in non-academic areas. The impact is two-fold in the sector because university workers are not eligible for the JobKeeper subsidy.
Gender pay gap
According to ES4W, the deterioration in paid employment in the workforce for women, relative to men will work against narrowing the gender pay gap. The gender pay gap in the Professional, Scientific and Technical Services sector sat at 24.3 per cent in 2019 and at 17.1 per cent In the IT sector (Source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/15/australias-gender-pay-gap-still14-with-men-earning-240-more-a-week-than-women). The unequal burden of job losses, rising underemployment and the surge in people dropping out of the labour force as a result of the recession triggered by COVID-19 will mean we need to continue our focus on the pay gap for women in STEM and women in IT in our advocacy work.
Gender superannuation gap
As part of its economic policy response to the C-19 pandemic, the federal government allowed workers to withdraw up to $10,000 from their superannuation accounts during the June quarter 2020 and to withdraw a further $10,000 during the September quarter 2020. According to preliminary data, women have eroded their superannuation balances more than men, a factor that will seriously undermine their retirement nest egg in the years and decades ahead. Initial research shows that women were withdrawing 21% of their starting superannuation balances compared to 17% of men. 14% of women had emptied their total super savings compared with 12% of men. We will need to continue our focus on this as an issue in our advocacy.
Impact on single parents
The WGEA’s study of the impact of COVID-19 also suggests that the impact of the pandemic on single parents – the majority of whom are women – was impacting women’s capacity to undertake paid work.[v]
Impact on young women
Another aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the disproportionate decline in employment for young women. According to payroll data compiled by the ABS, employment fell by a concerning 18 per cent for women under the age of 20 years, which compared with 13 per cent of men under 20 years and 6 per cent in total.
Access to affordable quality childcare
Childcare remains a critical issue in determining workforce participation of women and with that, their lifelong financial security. The extreme conditions of the COVID-19 crisis saw the government offer free childcare for a period of around three months, with this scheme ending on 12 July 2020. This support was mainly aimed at underpinning the viability of the childcare centres as many parents withdrew their children for reasons linked to the pandemic and the broader lock down, unemployment and affordability. It was a temporary measure to help the economy during the dire economic times brought on by the COVID-19 crisis rather than a longer run policy initiative to address the structural problems of access to childcare. The problems with access to affordable, quality childcare remain.
Paid and unpaid care
There is evidence that the lock downs and the move to home schooling saw female caring time increase in absolute terms and also relative to that of males and that is a factor in reducing their ability to participate in paid work.
[i] Professionals Australia is a member of the Economic Security 4 Women Alliance and much of the analysis contained in this section is extracted from their recently updated White Paper by Stephen Koukoulos.
[ii] 6202.0 – Labour Force, Australia, April 2020 – in https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-05-05/almost-one-million-australians-lose-jobs-due-to-coronavirus/12215494
[iii] Rapid Response Information Forum (2020. The impact of COVID-19 on women in STEM (2020). Available at https://www.science.org.au/covid19/women-stem-workforce
[iv] 6202.0 – Labour Force, Australia, April 2020 – in https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-05-05/almost-one-million-australians-lose-jobs-due-to-coronavirus/12215494
[v] Workplace Gender Equality Agency (2020). The Gendered Impacts of COVID-19.