Australian Women’s Labor Participation Could Stall Post-Pandemic

Australian Women’s Labor Participation Could Stall Post-Pandemic

Australian women’s labor market participation is at risk of stalling or even reversing unless the burden of unpaid housework is eased and masculine stereotypes are overcome, said economist Leonora Risse, who specializes in gender equality.

The female participation rate tumbled to 57.5% early in 2020, when virus lockdowns forced women out of the workforce, then recovered as pandemic policies like temporary free childcare helped ease the pressure. It now stands at 61.5%, still well below men’s 70.8% and Risse, a senior lecturer at Melbourne’s RMIT University, warned women might now be plateauing. 

“We’ll have to see if that means post-pandemic more women will look for flexible arrangements at work while men return to the office and have more opportunities by virtue of just being visible. If that happens, we’ll be going backwards,” said Risse, 43, who was a research fellow at Harvard University. 

Australian Women’s Labor Participation Could Stall Post-Pandemic

Her concerns come amid a surge in hiring in Australia since the easing of lockdowns in early October, with unemployment falling 1 percentage point to 4.2% in the final three months of 2021. Jobs growth probably cooled in January, data Thursday is expected to show, after an outbreak of the omicron variant, though the central bank predicts renewed strength once cases begin to subside.

Australia ranks 70th on the World Economic Forum for women’s participation in the economy, trailing Kazakhstan, Serbia and Zimbabwe. Political and economic life Down Under is dominated by men to an even greater degree than in the U.S., U.K. or Canada, while the virus has made gender inequality even worse.

Risse said introducing long paid parental leave for men, greater public investment in childcare, casting a “gender lens” over major policies and supporting young men to redefine traditional concepts of masculinity would likely help boost women’s participation. 

“There is a precedence to these moves,” she said, pointing to Scandinavia and parts of Canada that offer six-to-eight months of paid parental leave. 

Risse said research shows that adherence to stereotypical masculinity discourages men from entering female-dominated professions like childcare. It also corresponds with an increased prevalence of violence against women, another major factor behind low labor force participation.

It’s not just female labor force participation that’s low, either, with women’s earnings also weaker. Australian men are now twice as likely to be highly paid than women, according to a report from the government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

Risse says the problem is unlikely to be resolved until more men work in fields like childcare and healthcare, lower-paying sectors where female participation tends to be high.

Australian Women’s Labor Participation Could Stall Post-Pandemic

Much of the policy response to closing the gender pay-gap has been to encourage more women into male-dominated areas like finance, mining and construction. That approach overlooks the rising need for nurses and childcare workers, said Risse, who is a co-founder and national chair of the Women in Economics Network in Australia.

“That’s a big missing part of the policy picture,” she said, explaining that more men in such industries frees up women for other industries. 

“We don’t see the same sort of effort and campaigns and focus on how do we attract more men into aged care and to nursing and to childcare,” she said. “It means that we really don’t have a holistic approach to understanding these gender inequities.”

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