In every neighbourhood across Australia, doctors, nurses, teachers, carers and childcare workers are still turning up to work, in a tireless battle against a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
These workers are the first responders in an ongoing health and economic crisis. And they are almost all women.
The coronavirus has revealed the true value of the so-called “caring workforce”. As most of the economy grinds to a halt, these essential workers have been left on the frontline, fighting an invisible enemy that threatens our very way of life.
But for most of these female workers, they will take home significantly less pay than their male counterparts for exactly the same work. And they are far less likely to have the security of a permanent job.
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The coronavirus is exposing longstanding inequalities in Australia’s workforce. This includes extremely high rates of casual and insecure work, of which female workers bear the brunt.
It has also revealed the true value of female-dominated industries that have spent decades trying to shake off the belief that because a woman does it, it’s not very hard to do.
Women make up the overwhelming majority of Australia’s mammoth health care and social workforce. Of the 1.7 million workers in the sector, four out of five are female. But it’s also one of the sectors that has the biggest wage gap, with men earning nearly 24% more a week on average than women.
Health and social services covers more than just hospital staff. The bulk of the workforce is made up of nurses, followed by aged and disability carers, child carers, receptionists and personal support workers.
“They are the people that we can’t do without,” Annie Butler, federal secretary for the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, told Crikey. “Until it’s demonstrated to us by a crisis, we chose to ignore how valuable those workforces actually are.”
Unions have long been at pains to point out just how valuable these professions are. They are now at the forefront of a fight to reshape the post-virus workforce.
“The recovery from this crisis needs to include a significant reversing of the rates of insecure work and greater respect for all workers,” Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus said.
But it’s not just unions saying something needs to change. Cherelle Murphy, chief economist at ANZ, says the crisis has been the perfect storm for women, who are also more likely to pick up unpaid labor at home and see their retirement savings dwindle.
“Lower income for women means lower super balances, lower independence, lower domestic autonomy,” she said. “And we know that these are not easy times for women if they do lose their income.”
The government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency agrees that workplace reforms are needed, but says it is up to employers to take the lead in reshaping how women, particularly those in low-paid and insecure work, are valued.
“In looking at our economic recovery, we need to look at how we might reevaluate policy to recognise the importance of women,” director Libby Lyons told Crikey.
But the path forward in doing that is unclear. Alison Pennington, a senior economist with the Centre for Future Work, says there are powerful forces at play when it comes to maintaining the status quo.
“On the one hand we have a society that codes women’s work as less and says women should be paid less. Then there’s the reality that women’s work is core to how we get through this pandemic.
“It’s entirely possible we hold onto this cognitive dissonance after the crisis.”
Pennington says business groups will work hard to maintain casualisation rates and keep workers on minimum pay, decisions that affect women more than men.
“We know that it’s very profitable to say that caring work or essential work is natural to women, that it’s not a real skill,” she said.
“But if we as a society think these jobs are essential, then they should all be permanent.”
Others are more optimistic about the road ahead.
“There is a growing appreciation for what a challenging job we do is and how important it is,” Meredith Peace, president of the Australian Education Union’s Victoria branch, told Crikey.
“I hope we see better pay for those who play those vital roles because they are sadly undervalued by our community.”