Women at the frontline (and the rear) of COVID-19

Laura Moorby has never been busier. She’s a Relationship Manager for ANZ in the Australian Capital Territory and her customers heard the bank would assist them with loan repayment suspensions and other relief measures in response to COVID-19. Her phone hasn’t stopped ringing.

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Laura’s not saving lives directly but she may well be saving livelihoods.

"Women are much more likely to take on the role of the carer to cope with school shut downs or where elderly or sick relatives need help.”

She’s also one of approximately 230,000 women in finance and insurance services. The women at the health care and social assistance frontline - who are directly saving lives - are even more dominant in their sector, comprising 78 per cent of employees (compared with 51 per cent in finance and insurance).

Demand for these workers is very strong, as evidenced by student nurses and Australia-based internationally qualified nurses and midwifes being fast-tracked into the workforce.

But that’s not the case for Australia’s third and fourth most feminised industries: retail trade and accommodation. Large parts of the retail trade and accommodation and hospitality industries have been temporarily shut-down by COVID-19.

Given many in these industries are casuals and have not worked for their employer for at least 12 months they will also miss out on the Government’s $A1,500 fortnightly JobKeeper payment.

Analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data by Rebecca Cassells of the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre shows women make up 75 per cent of those missing out on the JobKeeper payment in these sectors.

And then there is the question of whether women who maintain their jobs can keep them.

Keeping mum

Women’s participation in the workforce was an all-time high of 61.6 per cent in January 2020 but it will fall as women are much more likely to take on the role of the carer to cope with school shut downs or where elderly or sick relatives need help. Women account for nearly 72 per cent of primary carers of children, those with a disability, and older people, according to a 2018 ABS survey. Mums are the heads of 82 per cent of single parent families.

If someone drops out of the workforce because of the economic impact of COVID-19 it seems more likely that person will be female. 

Beyond economic health

Meanwhile, those who need to withdraw from the workforce, lose their jobs or move to fewer hours will suffer lower financial independence, lower superannuation balances and they will lose domestic autonomy. The economic fallout will last longer than the virus.

The workplace changes being seen now have implications for mental wellbeing and gender has a critical determining role. While the research is ongoing, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated depression is not only the most common women's mental health problem but may actually be more persistent in women than men.

Of course some men’s psychological wellbeing will also take hit in these new and challenging times and they are less likely to reach out for help. Data over the last decade show men are much more likely to intentionally self-harm than women.

Of course men are being impacted by job losses and changes in ways of working too. An Essential survey taken from 1-5 April 2020 showed 32 per cent of men had changed their working hours or started working from home, which was similar to the proportion of women, at 33 per cent.

However, men were less likely to react to the threat of COVID-19. That is, they were less likely than women to increase their personal hygiene, limit attending social spaces, hold back on physical greetings and not use cash. This is perhaps because that same survey showed men were more likely than women to think there has been an over-reaction to the threat of COVID-19.

Further threats

Daniel Schneider, Kristen Harknett and Sara McLanahan are among several academic authors providing evidence that in times of economic hardship, men's controlling behaviour towards romantic partners increases, even after adjusting for unemployment and economic distress.

As Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison noted while announcing a $A150 million boost for the National Plan to reduce Violence against Women and their Children, Google recorded a five year high in searches on domestic violence. The Tasmanian, Queensland and Victorian Governments have also boosted their domestic violence prevention resources.

While there are clear gender differences in the fallout from COVID-19 emerging in Australia, they are likely to be more extreme in developing economies. In a 2016 International Affairs article, Sara Davies and Belinda Bennett noted a number of compounding disadvantages for West African women during the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak.

“In Liberia, for example, women comprise 85 per cent of daily market traders,” they found. “Delay in delivery of goods owing to travel restrictions, and increases in transport fares, have adversely affected the businesses of these women and their economic security”.

The closure of schools in response to Ebola also had a harsh impact on girls in West Africa, with the research pointing to an associated increase in adolescent pregnancies and difficulty in accessing pre- and post-natal care.

The Australian Government’s policy to offer temporary free childcare for young children is to be applauded. ANZ’s Laura Moorby had been fretting about how to combine her job and care of her 3-year old daughter. That is no longer a concern and little Ella remains in the centre that she is comfortable with. For Laura, the financial subsidy also helps offset the loss of income suffered when her tenant was forced to move out due to his own unfortunate job loss.

Equal representation

To continue devising the best policy solutions, we need decisions to be made by representative groups who are alert to the disparity of experience in the community.

The WHO Executive Board made the point there should be mainstream gender perspective in preparedness planning and emergency responses. But there are just two women out of eight on Australia’s National COVID-19 Coordination Commission Executive Board. On New Zealand’s Epidemic Response Committee there are four women out of 11.

On the United States’ 22 strong Coronavirus Task Force there are just two women including response coordinator, Deborah Birx. But there are four men named Robert.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told New Zealand’s children that although restrictions meant only essential workers could go to work, these included the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy. Prime Minister Erna Solberg told watchers of Norway’s children-only press conference that it was OK to feel scared about coronavirus.

These acts haven’t flattened the curve but they were lauded worldwide for their inclusivity and deeply human response to a threat that affects us all.

Cherelle Murphy is Senior Economist and Bansi Madhavani is Economist at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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