She-Cession Recession: The Outsized Impact of COVID-19 on Women in the Labor Market

Early childhood teacher Imogen Held has witnessed the impact of the pandemic on her female colleagues who have had to take unpaid leave to care for their sick children.

“How is this not hurting teachers when all they can think about is ‘how am I going to pay my bills? ‘” Held told Newshub Nation.

“How am I going to cover expenses, how am I going to put food on the table for my family? And then they go to work, trying to be the best teacher they can be. Yet, in the back of their minds, they’re wondering, “What if I get COVID? How am I going to make things work?”

In her research on the impact of the pandemic on women, Dr. Holly Thorpe found that for many heterosexual couples, the decision to cut back on work is a financial decision.

“When families have to make these tough decisions, it often depends on who brings in the biggest income and the gender pay gap that exists,” says Dr Thorpe.

“This means that it is often men’s jobs and professions that have been prioritized in these decisions.”

Women are also the most likely to lose their jobs, as seen during the first national lockdown.

In the June quarter of 2020, 90% of the 11,000 New Zealanders who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 were women.

“We actually saw women’s employment being hit harder because they were employed in sectors like services and hospitality,” says ANZ Chief Economist Sharon Zollner.

She says after this decline in employment in 2020, employment has returned to record highs, but now with COVID in every community, women will likely be affected again.

“The sectors that are suffering are sectors like the hotel industry, where young people and women are overrepresented.

“I think there may still be a job security issue there.”

For some women this will be particularly acute, with Pakeha women experiencing less impact than Maori women or women with disabilities.

“The pandemic is having a gendered effect, but it also intersects with these other important aspects of people’s lives,” says Dr Thorpe.

“The effects are not felt equally by all women, and some groups are much more affected than others.”

The pandemic has also created an economic climate of inflation that could intensify the gender pay gap. The cost of living is rising, but salaries are not matching it.

“How quickly you get out of this situation and get a fair deal will to some extent depend on how proactively you ask for a raise,” Zollner says.

“Evidence suggests that men are somewhat better than women who wait to be told what they are worth to some extent.”

Women are more likely than men to take on the unpaid work of caring for friends and family, dropping off groceries and planning meals in isolation during outbreaks.

“Women definitely get a lot of emotional work done,” says Dr. Thorpe.

“They have to make decisions, day-to-day decisions, about risk calculations for their families, for themselves, for their children.”

The government knows that women are being hit hard by the COVID pandemic.

The Ministry for Women warns that “existing inequalities such as the gender pay gap and occupational segregation…mean that women are more susceptible to economic hardship and less resilient to the economic impacts of COVID-19.”

However, Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s major economic stimulus fund, the Shovel Ready Fund, has gone to male-dominated infrastructure projects.

“I think the targeted industries were really important because it was to get the economy going again,” said Minister for Women Jan Tinetti.

The OECD urges governments to pursue targeted policies to close gender gaps and level the playing field.

Targeted funding for women has been minimal for women in New Zealand, but Tinetti insists change is coming.

“One of the areas we’re doing more research on is compensation,” she says.

“Transparency is one example. We know that pay negotiations can sometimes be difficult for women, so we are really interested in pay transparency.

“We’re also looking at the barriers to putting women in this precarious nature of the work they do. And so an example of that is childcare.”

The pandemic is also creating a job shortage due to those caring or self-isolating and a lack of immigration which could be a silver lining for women.

“Potentially, the labor shortages we’ve seen also mean that women have the opportunity, perhaps to take on more roles where they haven’t had the traditional experience that employers might find necessary. “says Zollner.

“It’s a real plus, but it’s not going to abruptly change attitudes and change gender roles.”

It would take a bigger upheaval than a global pandemic.”

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