Coronavirus: Calls for Govt to help women back into work post-COVID with gender equality plans, reference group

The Government is being called on to require contractors looking to work on 'shovel-ready' infrastructure projects post-COVID to have gender equality plans in place.

The Auckland Women's Centre hopes the move would encourage more women without work to take up traditionally male jobs.

It follows the revelation that the vast majority - roughly 90 percent - of the country's 11,000 lost jobs due to COVID-19 were held by women.

With $3 billion invested into the "overwhelmingly male" construction industry, the Auckland Women's Centre is now asking for urgent Government action to help New Zealand's women get back into work.

Retail, hospitality and tourism are three of the sectors most significantly affected by the country's COVID-19 outbreak, all of which are typically staffed by women.

Centre manager Leonie Morris told Magic Talk's Road to the Election on Sunday that the country still has "extreme occupational segregation", meaning there's a sharp gender divide between different sectors. 

"With COVID hitting those sectors hard, women are bearing the brunt of that," she told host Mitch McCann.

"We do believe they need to address this very directly and create employment for women."

In July, the Government allocated $3 billion to 'shovel-ready' infrastructure projects to help boost employment opportunities post-COVID, with the fund estimated to create 20,000 jobs across 150 projects. Yet Morris argues these positions will be "overwhelmingly male", and the Government has failed to focus funds on industries typically dominated by women. She hopes the latest statistics will serve as a wake-up call. 

"We think the best thing for them to do would be to set up a reference group. They've got their infrastructure industry reference group for the shovel-ready projects - they need a gender equality reference group that looks at how they are going to make sure women don't continue to be the hardest hit by COVID," Morris said.

"We'd like them to invest in industries where women currently work, and do more to encourage women into traditionally male jobs. There's been a little tinkering around the edges, but there could be significant work done to address this issue."

It's hoped that a greater emphasis on gender equality in construction will encourage out of work women to take up jobs in the 'male-dominated' sector.
It's hoped that a greater emphasis on gender equality in construction will encourage out of work women to take up jobs in the 'male-dominated' sector. Photo credit: Getty

The centre hopes a reference group would help achieve additional funding for social services, as well as the health and education sectors. 

Morris also suggested that construction companies should be required to have a gender equality plan in place before they are contracted to work on the 'shovel ready' projects.

"The Government can also require that people and agencies who are contracted to do that work have a gender equality plan, that would include things equal pay and promoting and mentoring women into higher positions," she explained.

"Not all of that $3 billion has been spent yet... the Government could require [that if] contractors want that contract, they have to have a gender equality plan."

Morris says there are a lot of entry-level positions in the construction industry that women could fill - "if that support is there". By having strict policies in place, particularly regarding sexual harassment, companies could make women feel more welcome in a male-dominated environment, she argues.

It comes as the COVID-19 Community Fund for women and girls, launched in May, has been doubled to $2 million.

Minister for Women Julie Anne Genter announced that the fund would offer financial aid for women's organisations, in support of the Government's aims to improve child wellbeing, reduce domestic and sexual violence and foster healthy and safe communities. 

"It's not a lot of money. You say the words '$3 billion' and $2 million - it's just incomparable," Morris said.

"There needs to be considerable more investment in women's wellbeing and employment."