COVID recession hit women harder than men says Grattan Institute

The independent Australian think tank the Grattan Institute has released a report that shows the COVID recession has hit women much harder than men, an impact that will compound women’s lifetime economic disadvantage.

According to the Institute, Australian women copped a triple-whammy:

  • they lost more jobs than men – almost 8% at the peak of the crisis, compared to 4% for men;
  • they shouldered more of the increase in unpaid work – including supervising children learning remotely – taking on an extra hour each day more than men, on top of their existing heavier load; and
  • they were less likely to get government support – JobKeeper excluded short-term casuals, who in the hardest-hit industries are mostly women.

Women’s work: The impact of the COVID crisis on Australian women – appropriately released on International Women’s Day 2021 – states: “Between February and May 2020, the construction sector lost less than 5% of its work hours but got more than $35 billion of government assistance, whereas the hospitality sector lost more than 47% per cent of its work hours but got only about $1.3 billion of direct government assistance.”

Why this matters – the importance of Australia’s community education providers in training women

“The unequal gender impact of the COVID-induced recession will be with Australia for many years to come. This matters because female participation in our economy is a major key to economic advancement,” said CCA CEO, Dr Don Perlgut.

The Australian Government’s Strategy to Boost Women’s Workforce Participation states, “Increasing women’s workforce participation leads to better living standards for individuals and families, improves the bottom line of businesses and is a significant driver of national economic growth.”

Australia’s not-for-profit adult and community education (ACE) providers have an outsize role to play to ensure the country meets this goal, because ACE organisations over-perform in training women across the vocational education and training (VET) sector, proportionately more than any other provider group. This applies in all states across the country.

As the table below shows, although the percentage of males and females participating in VET are roughly equal, female participation in community education providers are approximately two thirds of all students, the only provider group to consistently engage more women than men. (source: NCVER, 2018 figures)

“If Australia is really serious at female economic participation and its corollary of proper VET training for women, there is no doubt what to do: you must start with the community education sector, empowering and funding them to do their work,” said Dr Perlgut.

Total VET Students by Provider Type and gender percentage 2019
  Male (%) Female (%)
TAFE 52.6 47.5
Community Providers 43.3 56.7
Enterprise Providers 65.4 34.6
Private Providers 54.1 45.9
Universities 54.0 46.0
Schools 54.2 45.8
Total across providers 52.6 47.5


  Male (%) Female (%)
TAFE 46.8 53.2
Community Providers 37.0 63.0
Enterprise Providers 64.8 35.2
Private Providers 54.1 45.9
Universities  (Total <300) 47.5 52.5
Schools 54.8 45.2
Average across providers 50.2 49.8


  Male (%) Female (%)
TAFE  58.5 41.5
Community Providers 41.5 58.5
Enterprise Providers 64.4 35.6
Private Providers 50.5 49.5
Universities 54.8 45.2
Schools 57.2 42.8
Average across providers 51.4 48.6

Source: National Centre for Vocational Education Research, 2020

Women’s work: The impact of the COVID crisis on Australian women

The Grattan Institute report further states:

The faster-than-expected economic recovery and school re-openings have helped improve the outlook for women, but unemployment and underemployment remain too high, especially for vulnerable groups such as single parents, who are mostly women.

Women who became unemployed or left work in the recession face longer-term impacts on their wages and career progression because the COVID hit compounds the effects of other career breaks. Six months out of work can add another $100,000 to the average $2 million lifetime earnings gap between men and women with children in Australia.

Governments should inject more money into services sectors, childcare, and aged care, and rewrite the ‘rescue and recovery’ playbook before the next economic crisis.

Many Australians – particularly women – suffered more than they needed to in the COVID recession because elements of the government response were inadequate or ill-directed.

Policy makers seemed oblivious to the fact that this recession was different to previous crises – women now make up almost half the workforce, and they are overwhelmingly employed in the industries that were hit hardest by the government-imposed lockdowns, such as hospitality, tourism, and higher education.

Governments should ensure that any further stimulus goes well beyond the construction sector and includes at least temporary expansions of social programs and services. The Federal Government should also make a longer-term investment in childcare to support women’s workforce participation and the economic recovery.

Australia can ‘build back better’ after this crisis, but only if governments learn the lessons from the COVID recession.

Australia needs a new recession playbook, so women aren’t overlooked or forced to fall further behind.

The full report Women’s work: The impact of the COVID crisis on Australian women, by Danielle Wood, Kate Griffiths and Tom Crowley, can be downloaded from this link.

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