In the best of times, Australian women perform almost double the amount of time on caring duties compared to men. So what happens in today’s difficult times?

Yasmin Poole, WILPF’s 2020 Asia Pacific Youth Representative to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, discusses an underlying truth about women that COVID has revealed.

Australians have been through an enormously difficult year. COVID-19 sent our governments into crisis mode, unemployment skyrocketed and we saw a devastating loss of lives. As the recent outbreak in Sydney shows, we are not yet out of the woods.

It is true that, in whatever form, we have all been affected. But in turn, the pandemic has also revealed a raw, underlying truth – the gender gap.

COVID-19 has demonstrated just how reliant we are on women’s unpaid or underpaid labour. Australian women perform almost double the amount of time on caring duties compared to men. As a result, school closures and working from home placed even greater pressure on women to juggle time pressures – leading to more women transitioning to part-time work or being forced to abandon employment completely. The heroes on the frontline have come from female-led sectors, from nursing to aged care. Yet, the healthcare industry has a gender pay gap of 15.9% and the care industry remains one of the lowest paid in Australia. From our homes to our hospitals, the bulk of caretaking duties continue to be shouldered by women without, or with little, compensation.

Despite this, Australia’s federal COVID-19 response has overlooked gendered impacts. Decision-making bodies such as the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission has no gender experts and only a third of its board are women. The visible leaders executing the national COVID-19 response are all men – Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Health Minister Greg Hunt and Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy. The failure to use a gender lens was also demonstrated in key COVID-19 policy, such as the JobKeeper payment. Individuals who did not work in the same job for 12 months were excluded, which disproportionately impacted women who represent the bulk of informal work in Australia. While politicians emphasised that we are all in this together, women continue to have been forgotten.

History shows us that crisis silences women’s voices. Before COVID-19, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa considerably impacted women from the closure of essential reproductive care centres and the shutdown of female-led industries (such as cross border trade). Women were also more likely to become infected due to caring for infected family members. Despite these gendered implications, the World Health Organisation only included one line about gender in its Ebola response strategy and later assessments of its performance failed to consider how women were affected. Feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe also found that post-war economic reconstruction often overlooks women. The economic situation is deemed too ‘urgent’ to consider gender equality, meaning that women miss out on training and income which sets them back for decades.

These crises are all symptomatic of deeper structural inequality that oppresses women even in times of peace. Yet, urgency can be a deceptively compelling justification for decision-makers to overlook gender equality, ignoring the reality that their inaction compounds the pre-existing gender gap.

With all this in mind, where to next? Simply put – Australia’s response to COVID-19 must address gender inequality. A helpful place to start is investing in gender-disaggregated data to better understand how COVID-19 is impacting women. Australia should also implement a gender-responsive budget which measures formal, informal and unpaid work. A gender lens in this economic response justifies essential measures such as free childcare, which supports women returning to work should they wish to do so.

It is also important to remember the gendered impacts of COVID-19 on a global scale. The pandemic has seen young women being pulled out of education to care for family, alongside an increase in child trafficking. It has reduced women’s economic status and increased their vulnerability to gender-based violence. It has increased the threat of instability within and between nations. As with any situation that increases instability, whatever the cause, it is essential that women are equally involved in all decision making processes: in this case, pertaining to the control of and recovery from the virus.  This needs to occur not just at the national level within countries, but also in international and multilateral forums. We need women at the decision-making table. Failure to do so exacerbates the risk of increased violence and major conflict occurring.

We will overcome this terrible pandemic. But as we move to recovery, we must ask feminist questions every step of the way.

It is never too urgent to address gender equality – because it is never acceptable to leave women behind.


Contributor: Yasmin Poole is a speaker, writer and youth advocate, and a YWILPF Australia member. She sits on the board of YWCA Australia and is the youngest winner of the Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence.