Advancing gender equality beyond COVID-19 pandemic

Senate Select Committee on COVID-19: Public Hearing

September 22, 2020

Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner


Thank you for inviting me to appear before you today.

Women are disproportionately on the frontline of our fight against COVID-19. The majority of our health care workers, social assistance workers and teachers are women, as are the majority of unpaid carers. COVID-19 has also had a real impact on the financial and physical security of many women – bringing significant job losses, increasing incidences of domestic violence, creating new caring obligations, and putting pressure on grassroots service providers.

I welcome efforts by the Australian government to introduce quick, short-term measures to address some of these economic and physical risks. Australia can be rightly proud of its efforts in this early stage of the pandemic.

However, we can also do better moving forward. The severe health, social and economic impacts of COVID-19 have created a compelling opportunity to quickly  improve our protection of human rights, rethink the nature of paid and unpaid work, and address some pervasive  structural obstacles to Australia’s prosperity.

Today, I wish to outline three priority areas for the government’s response to COVID-19 moving forward: economic action, social action, and decision-making frameworks.

Firstly, economic action. Australia’s economic recovery from this pandemic will be fastest and most successful if it leverages the labour potential of the whole population. Well established research  by McKinsey has identified  increasing  women’s participation in the  paid workforce  as the most  effective  lever  to boost Australia’s GDP and household income.

COVID-19 has revealed the extent to which structural and systemic barriers are the primary impediment to women’s full participation in the paid workforce, and therefore their economic security. It has also exacerbated many of those barriers. The current period provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remove them once and for all.

There are three steps we should take immediately. Firstly, we must reduce our high childcare costs. Increasing the affordability of  early  childhood education and care  boosts economic output by directly increasing women’s participation and productivity in the paid workforce. KPMG recently published a study which found that increasing the Child Care Subsidy to 95 per cent of the current hourly rate cap would create an annual benefit to GDP of almost 140 per cent of the cost of the measure – adding $2.1 billion to our GDP each year. I commend the government’s swift action to support parents accessing childcare and the childcare sector when this crisis began. We now need longer-term change to ensure that childcare remains accessible and that women can go to work.

Secondly, we must tackle gender segregation in our industries and professions. Job creation efforts in the pandemic and post-pandemic period are important, but care must be taken to ensure that they do not solely target male-dominated industries like construction. All stimulus initiatives should be analysed for their differing impacts on male- and female-dominated industries – feminised industries should not be left behind. Re-skilling opportunities should be created for the under-represented gender in male- and female-dominated industries. In particular, we should upskill women to enter STEM roles by creating incentives for  the STEM and  education sectors to create targeted online courses and apprenticeships for women. This is a simple step which would fill a workforce need in the STEM sector whilst tackling gender diversity in STEM and providing women who have lost their jobs during COVID-19 with a new pathway.

Thirdly, we must ensure that our industrial and financial rules are fair. The industrial relations reform discussions currently underway should be informed by gender disaggregated labour force data and gender expertise, and prioritise the creation of secure employment and better mechanisms to support gender-equal pay. And we should consider measures to increase women’s superannuation balance, such as allowing ‘catch up’ payments and introducing  superannuation contributions during parental leave periods.

We know that focusing on  economic changes  whilst failing to address  societal constraints  will undermine progress. Sadly, there is increasing evidence that the already tragic rates of domestic and family violence facing Australian women have increased during the pandemic period. Now  is the moment to comprehensively tackle  gender-based violence, with long-lasting measures beyond the welcome, but limited, domestic violence support package announced by the government in March.

There are several ways in which the government could improve our response levers to violence against women, which I recently outlined before the House Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs’ Inquiry into Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence. These include developing a gender-responsive national housing strategy, expanding emergency lists and online service provision in courts, and building capacity in the response system to tackle technology-facilitated abuse. The government should also provide sustained funding to implement primary prevention work addressing the underlying drivers of violence against women, including under the Second National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children.

Lastly, I want to mention the importance of inclusive government decision-making. Decisions are most effective when they are made by people with diverse experience and knowledge. It is imperative that women be included in decision-making roles in our pandemic response, and that decision-makers meaningfully engage with organisations with gender expertise. One simple way to do this would be to ensure that the National Cabinet governance structure includes an advisory panel on gender equality. Of course, decision-makers also need a strong evidence base, which means we must collect gender disaggregated data throughout this crisis. In addition, the ‘public face’ of government communications should be diverse to enhance its effectiveness.

It will be important for the government, business and the community to work together to remove barriers to women’s workforce participation and ensure that women are safe from violence in the pandemic period and beyond. Now that we have had some time to adjust our policy levers to our new reality, and with the federal budget and refresh of the Women’s Economic Security Statement imminent, now is the perfect time for the government to accelerate its progress in combating gender inequality and advancing Australia’s economic recovery.

COVID-19, for all its tragedy, has illustrated how quickly government and business can respond – and communities can adapt – when systems and structures are changed in the common interest. I will continue to advocate for us to seize this moment to advance gender equality in Australia.

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