Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s admission that Australia’s unemployment rate is more than double what the official statistics tell us, is a massive setback for progress on gender equality in this country.
As it stands the road to achieving gender equality is considered complex in normal times but add a global pandemic to the picture and things get really challenging.
Yesterday the Treasurer said the real unemployment rate was more like 13.3% and not the 7.1% officially reported.
Official statistics also show that since March, women have suffered the most job losses in percentage terms compared to men.
Increased demand for unpaid childcare, particularly during the period when homeschooling was required, has also disproportionally affected women’s ability to undertake paid work.
This is all problematic because boosting female work participation is seen as being key to supporting greater gender equality in the workforce.
There are some other home truths that make things more difficult too.
#1 Men earn more than women
While in World War II women were indeed called upon to take up paid employment, it was made clear that women were performing “men’s work.” It would seem that today society continues to view work (paid and unpaid) through a gendered lens. In the majority of heterosexual households the father is still the main income earner, while the mother is either working full time yet (much like in WWII) drawing a lesser salary, or working part time or casually. Under these circumstances, it stands to reason that for purely financial reasons, many families make the decision that the father’s job has to take priority.
#2 Women are increasingly self-employed
Women are increasingly becoming self-employed in an effort to better manage the work and childcare juggle. According to a new study by Xero, two thirds of new businesses created in Australia in the past 10 years were founded by women. Given how long it takes to build a profitable business and the high failure rate among start-ups, a new business is unlikely to be a family’s primary source of income. It’s easy to see how once again, women would prioritise their spouse’s career over their own.
#3 Old habits die hard
From an early age, girls are taught that childcare and housework is their primary responsibility, while men have been conditioned to believe that their only job is to provide financially. As a result, many men do little around the home and children turn to mum in the first instance for everything (even if it means walking straight past dad in the kitchen to interrupt mum’s shower in search of a sandwich, but I digress).
So what can you do from here?
While it is encouraging to see more couples working together to manage the parental load, COVID19 has shone a light on how far we still have to go before achieving true gender equality. Women still remain the more financially vulnerable for a number of reasons, including earning a lesser wage and accumulating a significantly lower super balance as a result of career breaks.
Given that the census shows the average Australian today is a working mum of two, it’s high time that we as a society update our view of what ‘normal’ looks like.
Women need to start demanding and expecting more from our spouses, our workplaces and our governments.
At home, we need to redefine our roles and expectations and continue to push back against outdated gender stereotypes. In short, we need to become more vocal and raise the bar on what we will and will not tolerate.
Given that in 40 years the needle has barely moved on gender equality, especially compared to the rapid rate of social change in other areas, it is clear that talking about gender equality is not enough. Until men and women start to work together to role model new behaviours for the next generation, gender equality will continue to be decades if not centuries away.
The good news is that there are simple things each of us can do today to continue to influence the rate of progress, such as:
- Encouraging our spouses to take advantage of or negotiate flexible work arrangements so that we are better able to share the load.
- Leaving workplaces that refuse to offer that flexibility (research has shown that men are twice as likely as women to have their request to work flexibly rejected and are more likely to experience workplace discrimination due to caring responsibilities).
- Lobbying government to increase childcare subsidies and extend parental leave eligibility to men, so as to enable more women to return to paid employment and more fathers to share parenting responsibilities.
- Delegating (and absolving ourselves of) more household and child caring responsibilities.
While I am loath to place the burden of change on women, the stark reality is that we work in a system designed by men, for men. Why would they want to change a system that has served them so well? We have to make it impossible for them not to.