A silver lining from the last two years of lockdowns is that flexible working has become much more acceptable. In fact, I’m writing this from home right now, something that as a daily news reporter wasn’t normal as recently as early 2020.
People in all sorts of jobs that largely require sitting in front of a computer have been able to embrace flexible forms of work. And it’s particularly benefited women.
Since the start of the pandemic, women have entered the workforce in droves. Women’s participation rate is at a high of 62.5 per cent, and the move of women into jobs has helped drive the country’s unemployment rate down to 3.5 per cent, its lowest level in nearly 50 years.
ANZ senior economist Catherine Birch recently highlighted the fact it was particularly women with children under the age of 15 who were entering the workforce.
This is great news, right? Well, unfortunately it’s not totally rosy.
A report from some Treasury economists published last week found that women suffer an enormous drop in pay for years after having children, whether they are the main family breadwinner or not.
Analysing data from the tax office and Australia’s health information agency, the report’s authors Natasha Bradshaw and Elif Bahar found women earned on average 55 per cent of their pre-birth pay in the five years after giving birth, and the “motherhood penalty” also extended to their job satisfaction.
Bradshaw Bahar also pointed out the post-birth pay difference was driven largely by women, and men were unaffected for the most part.
Of course, some women chose to focus on raising their children, but the fact even women who were the household’s main earner seem to take a prolonged pay hit suggests there are other factors preventing women from returning to their full pre-birth income.
A recent report from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency might shed some light here.
The independent government agency found that across all working ages, no more than 50 per cent of women worked full time. It also pointed out that better paid management positions were reserved for full-time workers 90 per cent of the time.
The agency’s director Mary Wooldridge said for many women, working part time was “not a genuine choice”.
It’s probably also no surprise to hear that same report found men out-earned women across all age brackets. The wage gap peaks between ages 55 to 64, when men are twice as likely to be in management than women, and subsequently out earn their female counterparts by 31.9 per cent.
The divergence starts around the age of 35, the agency found. And many millennial women who are nearing that age are currently reaching management positions at equal rates as men, Wooldridge said.
Let’s look closer at that silver lining again.
With a glut of jobs currently on offer (nearly half a million, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics), businesses are having to put significant effort into attracting and retaining staff.
This gives prospective employees a bit more power - not offering two days a week of working from home or flexible hours might send applicants elsewhere. It also means the opportunity for a bit of a pay bump.
But flexible work only suits so many employees or industries. Nurses can hardly attend patients from home, and you can’t get a virtual cup of coffee.
A few things are needed to improve access to work and better pay for women across industries. A report from Chief Executive Women earlier this year said bigger investments in childcare, improved access to paid parental leave and lifting wages in female-dominated industries could bring enough women back into the workforce to fill the equivalent of half a million full-time jobs.
As Chief Executive Women’s president Sam Mostyn said at the time, these changes are worth “hundreds of billions into the economy if you get this right”.
The government knows getting more women into work is important for the economy - not just now, as businesses scramble to find workers, but into the future so we have the wealth of knowledge and skills to grow productivity.
Women’s work will be front and centre at the September job’s summit. Minister for Finance and Women, Katy Gallagher will have a lot to consider here. One of the government’s key election promises was extending the childcare subsidy to more households in July next year, and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said the end goal is universal access.
That should include better out-of-hours childcare access for people who work outside normal office hours, including nurses and hospitality workers.
Women have come far during the pandemic thanks to the seismic shift in the way we work. The government, businesses and industries need to find a way to keep some of these changes and improve in other areas if they want to ensure the vast pool of female talent stays in the workforce long into the future.
The Business Briefing newsletter delivers major stories, exclusive coverage and expert opinion. Sign up to get it every weekday morning.