The recovery from COVID-19 must not leave women behind

OneVue CEO Connie Mckeage calls on the Government and private sector to support Australian women in the COVID-19 recovery phase.

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The latest Financy Women’s Index paints a concerning picture about how COVID-19 will affect women’s pay parity long after an economic recovery and the virus has been eradicated.

It’s worth noting that the pace of quarterly progress in the Women’s Index – it rose by 0.4 percentage points to a revised 71.3 points in the March quarter, up from 71 points in the December period – is the worst start to a calendar year since 2015.

Growth in female employment was already slowing in the March quarter, before the Federal Government introduced social distancing measures, and this has inevitably slowed since then now that numerous businesses are shutting down, temporarily suspending operations or cutting costs (or all of the above).

But that’s only the beginning. Consider that women are, on average, more likely than men to hold less secure types of employment – casual, part-time and so on – often because of outside-work responsibilities such as caring for children.

Now that so many children are home from school, these responsibilities will take up even more time in the day.

Given that women overwhelmingly tend to be the primary carers of children and family members, this the share of unpaid work in the household during the pandemic is likely to increase, even after a period where the gender gap in unpaid work fell to 60% in the December quarter, down from 71% the year before.

The fact that this will invariably widen the pay gap between men and women as this crisis continues is but one part of the problem.

We must also look at how this will – for each individual woman whose pay has been reduced, hours have been cut and so on – have a material and lasting effect on their retirement outcomes as well.

As the report explains, women already retire with 31% less in their retirement savings than men.

How much farther will this gap widen due to the current crisis – especially if women are forced to withdraw from their savings in order to manage COVID-related hardship?

The current situation is likely to worsen things at a leadership level, too.

Research has shown a clear correlation between economic growth and improved gender diversity in company leadership, so the effects of COVID-19 on the economy mean we’re unlikely to see an increase in gender diversity on the boards of Australian listed companies for the rest of 2020. (As at December 2019, it stands at 30.7%).

What these figures show us is that while the entire world has been affected by COVID-19, there are clear effects that occur along gendered lines.

This is not the time to become complacent, nor to create excuses as to why women continue to suffer financially more than men during difficult economic periods and continue to have fewer leadership opportunities.

Any further Government response to this situation, as well as the remuneration practices of the private sector, must take this into account if women aren’t going to be left even further behind in the coming years.

Connie Mckeage is the CEO of OneVue Group.

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