The prime minister, Scott Morrison, is angry with women. Not all of us, just those making a fuss about the woeful lack of attention to women’s workforce participation, economic security and safety in the budget his treasurer handed down on Tuesday night.
After early childhood education advocate and journalist Georgie Dent published an article in Women’s Agenda pointing out that the biggest-spending budget in history had allocated roughly a third of 1% of its funds for women’s economic security (citing a figure I tweeted from the Per Capita account during the budget presentation on Tuesday night), she received a call from the PM’s office to complain that “no one credible” was making such a complaint, and that “nothing in the budget is gendered”.
To quote one famous working woman: big mistake. Big. Huge.
Within a couple of hours, the hashtag #CredibleWomen was born, and soon trending in Australia. Twenty-four hours later, more than 1,000 very angry, and highly credible, women and men had joined the fray, including prominent journalists and commentators, business leaders, former federal politicians, economists and sociologists, and even the family members of former prime ministers, both Labor and Liberal. So much for no one credible.
As for the claim that nothing in the budget was gendered – that’s the point. Proudly declaring that no gender analysis was done on the budget reveals a disturbing ignorance of the inherent bias in our economic system, and a fundamental confusion between the concepts of equality and equity. A budget that treats everyone equally, ignoring the fact that women start from a place of significant disadvantage on almost every meaningful economic measure, simply entrenches gender inequality and, in light of the disproportionate impact of the current recession on women, actually risks sending us backwards.
The fact is, the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent economic collapse have hit women particularly hard. While previous recessions were typified by declining aggregate demand for manufactured goods and services, the current downturn is marked by a partial or total shutdown of many service industries, which are dominated by female workers.
Social distancing restrictions have resulted in an unparalleled collapse in demand, which has had an immediate impact on sectors of the market unused to bearing the brunt of economic shocks, with widespread jobs losses in retail, entertainment and hospitality. Universities, too, are shedding jobs at an alarming rate, and many of the jobs in research, teaching and administration that have been lost will not return even if and when international students do.
As a result, unemployment for women in this Covid-induced economic collapse is double that of the 1990s recession. While women suffered roughly 25% of all job losses in the early 1990s, they account for more than 50% of the newly unemployed today.
A budget that treats everyone equally … simply entrenches gender inequality
Yet the Morrison government seems to have failed to come to grips with the different nature of this recession compared to previous downturns, or to have grasped the significant changes in our labour market over the three decades since Australia last faced the task of rebuilding a shattered economy. The budget released on Tuesday night was a fine plan for recovery from the recession of the early 1990s, but not so much for the one we face today.
Thirty years ago, manufacturing still played a significant role in Australia’s economy, accounting for around one in five jobs, with textile, clothing and footwear manufacturing a large employer of women in the sector. Today, services account for 70% of Australia’s gross domestic product and the fastest growing employment sector is healthcare and social assistance, a workforce that is overwhelmingly female.
Women’s labour force participation has also changed, with more women working even when their children are young, partly due to the need for two incomes to service an average mortgage, but also because more Australian women are seeking to make the most of their education and pursue the kind of career opportunities that men have long taken for granted.
The 2020, post-pandemic budget, which is tasked with restoring the economy from its greatest collapse in a century, is blind to these issues. The initiatives aimed at restoring jobs prioritise investment in sectors of the economy dominated by male workers, with around $7bn of spending brought forward for investment in roads, $1.3bn in the modern manufacturing initiative to support male-dominated manufacturing industries, and a $1bn wage subsidy for apprentices, 75% of whom are likely to be men.
While these are all worthwhile initiatives, they will do little to support the women pushed out of work in recent months; and even before the impact of Covid-19, the most likely person to rely on the unemployment benefit was a woman aged over 45, as shown in a report from the independent Parliamentary Budget Office last week.
Economists and advocates agree that increased funding to reduce the cost of childcare is the most important intervention the government could make to lift women’s workforce participation. A recent report by the Grattan Institute estimated a return of $11bn in GDP growth from getting more women back to work, against a $5bn investment to lift the childcare subsidy to 95%. It’s hard to find an initiative that gives more bang for the buck than that, yet the government had nothing for childcare in its budget.
A broader investment in the care economy would see almost as many jobs created for men as would investment of the same rate in construction, but four times as many jobs for women. With the demand for aged care increasing every year, and the revelations during the pandemic of the impact of years of underinvestment on the quality of care provided for vulnerable Australians, a significant boost to the care economy is another missed opportunity from this year’s budget.
These are just some of the very real, and very credible, concerns held by women after taking a good look at what our government had to offer on Tuesday night. Yet Morrison, rather than reflect on the dismay of 51% of the population, is digging in, dismissing critics of the budget’s missing gender lens as “voices of disruption, of division”. Rather than constituents with legitimate complaints, we are, apparently, “people who have come to this place to fight, not to build”.
It may be news to the PM, but women have never achieved any rights equal to men’s without a fight. There are thousands of very credible women across Australia, of all political stripes, who won’t give up that fight, for ourselves and our daughters – and every one of us votes.
• Emma Dawson is executive director of Per Capita