27 September 2023

Will COVID-19 derail women’s empowerment?

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Bianca Hartge-Hazelman* says female empowerment is at risk of a setback as the latest Financy Women’s Index shows financial progress slowed to 2015 levels.

Prior to 2015, the world had never heard of #Me Too, #Timesup or even gender diversity targets on Australia’s top company boards – in other words female empowerment was still waiting to be supercharged.

Today these things, and many more like them, have been critical to igniting social debate in favour of women’s progress at work, in the home and financially.

But what saddens me now is that according to the latest Financy Women’s Index the pace of female progress has returned to levels not seen since 2015 – it’s as if the impact of COVID-19 on jobs and wages has erased many key milestones in female empowerment.

Of course history cannot be erased, but what it gives us is a chance to change or be changed.

Consider, the early 1940’s during World War 2, Australian women were encouraged to move into the paid workforce while men were asked to fight abroad.

The outcome was one of tragedy in lives lost despite victory in defending our freedom.

For women who entered the paid workforce, it led to a defining moment of empowerment and one that changed society into being a little more accepting of the female money earner.

The opportunity boosted female participation in the workforce, all while giving many women a taste of financial independence.

Now 80 years on, humanity’s latest battle is against the Coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic, which has infected over 3-million people worldwide and killed over 200,000 people, with slightly more male deaths than female, according to the World Health Organisation.

COVID-19 has forced us to live differently as we try to both protect our health and cushion the economic blow of the crisis, and thereby enhance our recovery outlook.

From an economic perspective, past downturns and wars helped advance women’s financial equality, but only this time, early indicators suggest that COVID-19 appears to be driving a setback.

For the Financy Women’s Index (the Index), which measures the economic progress of Australian women each quarter, the impact of COVID-19 is showing early signs that women are being hit hard and fast by job cuts and lost income.

The pace of progress in the March quarter reflects the slowest start to a calendar year since 2015.

Such findings may be just temporary and are also yet to be fully factored into the Index, however they do present us with a warning of what could come if we don’t see a significant and sustained breakthrough in COVID-19 cases in Australia and abroad.

Of course, I understand that these themes may be sideline issues at the moment, as we prioritise addressing the health impacts of COVID-19 first and foremost.

However, it is the financial disadvantages facing many women, such as gender gaps in superannuation and wages, which makes me worry about the long-term impact of COVID-19 and the potential derailment of progress on economic equality.

We’re now being shown very clearly just how financially vulnerable many women are, particularly those who work in undervalued and underpaid sectors. Indeed, COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of essential services occupations like Nursing and Teaching.

There is arguably an opportunity for governments and the private sector to recognise the value of traditionally female-dominated industries and also implement permanent changes to flexible working policies permanently, which could significantly benefit women in the long-term.

The Federal Government also has an opportunity to peer through the gender lens at what measures should be taken to better support female workforce participation and financial security as we emerge from this crisis.

Already the temporary introduction of free childcare for any family whose children are enrolled in an approved child care service is being celebrated by some as a step in the right direction towards changes that could better support working families.

Childcare and widespread flexible work arrangements are often major barriers stopping women from more fully engaging in paid work.

If we can rapidly adapt to fight COVID-19 from a health perspective, perhaps we can also learn from successful temporary measures and then change to better support the financial security and progress of individuals, particularly women, in post COVID-19 world.

*Bianca Hartge-Hazelman is the editor and founder of the Financy Women’s Index and women’s money publication Financy.

This article first appeared at financy.com.au.

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