On June 22, 2020, Power to Persuade – an online platform with a focus on social policy in the Australian context – published a blog post written by myself and two colleagues, Brendan Churchill and Leah Ruppanner. This blog post discusses the situation for young women in Australia in the context of COVID-19 and as we look ahead. With permission from Power to Persuade, the blog post is reposted here:
Much has been written about the gendered impacts of COVID-19, the attendant economic downturn and the government policy responses. In today’s analysis, Signe Ravn (@Ravn_Signe), Brendan Churchill (@BrenChurchill) and Leah Ruppanner (@Leahruppanner), all of University of Melbourne, explain why young women are facing particular employment challenges and how government policy responses are failing to account for their particular circumstances. Young women are at risk of falling through the policy cracks, with long-term negative outcomes for their economic security.
With restrictions starting to ease across Australia, it is time to start thinking about what the ‘new normal’ is going to look like beyond avoiding handshakes and missing out on buffet style brunches. We know that the lockdown and the resultant economic downturn due to COVID-19 has and will have different consequences for different groups in society and will almost definitely widen existing social inequalities. Two groups that were not faring so well before COVID-19 were women and young people, and early evidence suggests that these two groups have been affected significantly by the pandemic. Australian women, as Rae Cooper and Sarah Mosseri observe, now face a ‘triple whammy’: (1) they are on the frontline as essential workers putting them at greater risk of COVID-19, (2) women who were employed before COVID-19 are losing work hours; and (3) they are doing more unpaid work at home. Despite an initial narrative that COVID-19 was something for only older people to fear, young people have been just as susceptible to contracting COVID-19 and it has been ‘youth-friendly’ industries that have been hit hardest. In fact, country-wide data shows that young women aged 20-29 have the highest infection rates.
Gendered effects of COVID-19 include young women
But what about being young and a woman during COVID-19? Young women are in many ways particularly vulnerable. The youth unemployment rate in May was 16.1 percent, which is highest youth unemployment figure in 23 years. It is more than double the unemployment rate of the general population at 7.1 percent. Young people are also less likely to qualify for JobKeeper because they are more likely to have been working for their employer for less than 12 months, which disqualifies them from this scheme. An analysis conducted by Rebecca Cassells and Alan Duncan show that more women are excluded on this basis than men. Those who are ineligible have to rely on Youth Allowance, which is paid at a considerably lower rate, despite the significant temporary increase in both Youth Allowance and JobSeeker rates. Between March and April, there was a 61 percent increase in young people aged 25 years and under claiming Youth Allowance and JobSeeker. The increases were higher for women (71.5%) than men (53.3%). Young women are more likely to work in jobs that will take longer to rebound in the recovery phase – accommodation, food service and retail – and even if they do recover, young people risk being ‘crowded’ out by job-seeking older workers with potentially more qualifications or experience, reducing young people’s chances of employment. So, how do young women navigate life post-pandemic? What happens when young women return the labour market?
Government response: hit the books
The government has offered a solution – young people need to reskill. This is a common ‘go to’ for governments when faced with high youth unemployment, although it is usually something saved for elections. In April, as part of a relief package, the Federal Government urged Australians to binge on studies rather than Netflix during the lockdown. The Government announced it would subsidise a suite of online, higher education short courses in ‘fields of national priority’ such as nursing, teaching, and psychology. These courses, targeted at ‘displaced workers’ across all ages, would run for a maximum of 6 months and result in a Graduate Diploma, a Graduate Certificate or the new qualification, the Undergraduate Certificate. We know that in times of economic crisis, more young people turn to the education system, especially to skills-focused programmes. However, the actual skills obtained from these new short courses are not entirely clear. Mostly, they seem to serve as a ‘taster’, allowing students to start building a degree at a discounted price, but with subsequent enrolment in the full degree at normal cost. It is not yet clear what the uptake of these courses will be amongst young women and also what the value of these certificates, new to the labour market, will be as most courses only commence in July. It is also unclear what the support for the large group of young people combining education and work will be as this initiative is not helping them pay their study fees, and many are likely to have lost their jobs.
What is clear, though, is that young Australian women are already very well educated. Australia ranks no. 1 in the world in terms of women’s educational attainment, and almost one-in-two have completed tertiary education, with university enrolment rates consistently higher for women than for men. The Victorian ‘Free TAFE’ initiative launched in 2019 has also proven to be hugely popular amongst young Victorian women. Further, a recent study demonstrated how even young women who have left school before completing Year 12 often have plans to return to some form of education at some stage.
An incomplete solution
In light of this, uptake amongst women is likely guaranteed, but it does beg the question as to whether governments have thought about the gendered impacts of this policy response. Furthermore, it is not clear what success looks like here, especially for young women.
Numerous studies have shown how young women in Australia need higher qualifications than men to compete for the same jobs, and do not enjoy the same returns from education as men. So, while young women may be interested in enrolling in these short courses in the hope that upskilling will improve their position in the labour market, they might not be able to reap the benefits as easily as envisioned by the government.
This policy response has real long-term impacts as studying keeps women out of the labour market for longer with smaller returns, which means lower lifetime earnings and smaller superannuation contributions. The problem will only further compound as women reach their peak fertility years and consider having children. The government response – to re-educate, re-skill and re-envision – is helpful only if women’s time is freed up from their unpaid obligations, which they have at approximately twice the rate as men. It also requires young women to be able to pay the tuition fees upfront. The solutions are readily available – free universal childcare, sufficiently subsidised aged care, sick time for all employees including casuals, tuition-free education or access to loans schemes across all education sectors. But without them, the investment from the government into education cannot fully be reaped. Young women need their human capital developed but also their care demands acknowledged, supported and equalised. Only then can we see young Australian women working to their full potential. And that would be a beautiful thing.