Last week’s employment data for December did not merely confirmed that 2017 was a great year for job creation — something the government was understandably eager to celebrate — but as savvy commentators like Michael Pascoe pointed out, was great news for female workers. Women took the bulk of 400,000 net jobs created in 2017, and the bulk of the full-time jobs too.

We won’t know the composition of the new jobs created in December until we see the data for the February quarter in a couple of months, but as Crikey noted last week, health and education provided nearly half the new jobs over the twelve months to November — workforces traditionally dominated by women. Health, education and social care all have workforces between 70-80% female.

As it turns out, this growth in health, caring services and education is exactly as predicted by the Department of Education in a 2014 analysis of the likely future workforce. That study also predicted an expansion in construction (87% male) and that turned out to be right as well — construction employment grew strongly in 2017 too.

But offsetting that was that retail — another traditionally female-dominated workforce (55%) — also had a strong year in terms of employment in 2017. As a consequence of all this, the female labour force participation rate increased to a new historical high of 60.4%, having increased steadily over the past year. That compares with 58.6% in December 2014. The male rate was steady on 70.9%, but down from 71% in December 2014.

There’s some extra bragging rights for the Turnbull government in all this beyond a stellar year of job creation (and somehow magically achieved without a company tax cut!). Traditionally, Australian policymakers have prioritised male employment over female employment. We’ve always relied heavily on housing construction for employment and continue to do so, and we have pumped tens of billions of dollars into subsidies for the housing sector in recent decades. And we’ve propped up inefficient but male-dominated sectors like heavy manufacturing (over 85% male) and automotive manufacturing (~80% male) because of the strong role played by unions in those sectors, while manufacturing areas like textiles, clothing and footwear that employed large numbers of women (currently, 58%) and often women from non-English speaking backgrounds, got short shrift from successive governments, who slashed tariffs and let competition rip, destroying tens of thousands of female jobs in the process. 

These days, we’re still wasting billions protecting defence manufacturing while relying on textile imports from China, India and Bangladesh. But because of its increased funding for health, childcare and early childhood, primary and secondary education — funding to which it has been dragged kicking and screaming by Labor’s staunch opposition to funding cuts — the Turnbull government for once has backed female-dominated industries.

In truth this is the overall direction of our workforce anyway, and has been for decades: no matter how many billions we’ve wasted backing manufacturing, that workforce has shrunk significantly regardless, while services, which employs a much greater proportion of women, have grown steadily. And that growth has over the last decade been rocket-propelled by the rise and rise of health and social care in the face of an ageing population. Get used to this growth of working women: it’s an economic change that’s been a generation in the making.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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