Recession to she-cession: COVID-19's outsized impact on women in the workforce

With an Omicron outbreak in every community throughout New Zealand women are likely to be the most economically affected, a chief economist says.

Over the last two years COVID-19 has hit women the hardest making gender inequalities worse.

Recession to she-cession: COVID-19's outsized impact on women in the workforce
Photo credit: Newshub Nation.

Early childhood teacher Imogen Held has witnessed the impact of the pandemic on her female colleagues who have had to take unpaid leave to look after their sick children.

"How is that not harming the teachers when all they can think about is 'how will I pay my bills?'" Held told Newshub Nation.

"How will I cover the expenses, how will I put food on the table for my family?' And then they go to work, trying to be the best teacher they can. Yet in the back of their mind, thinking 'what if I get COVID? How am I going to make things work?"

In her research into the pandemic's impact on women, Dr Holly Thorpe discovered for many heterosexual couples the decision on who cuts back on work is a financial one.

"When families are having to make these difficult decisions, often it is based on who is bringing in the more significant income and with the existing gender pay gap," says Dr Thorpe.

"That means it's often men's jobs and professions that have been prioritised in these decisions."

Women are also most likely to lose their jobs as was seen in the first national lockdown.

In the June quarter of 2020, 90 percent of the 11,000 New Zealanders who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 were women.

"We saw actually women's employment take a bigger hit because they were employed in the likes of the service industries and hospitality," says chief economist for ANZ Sharon Zollner.

She says after that dip in 2020 employment bounded back to record highs but now with COVID in every community, women will likely take the hit again.

"The sectors that are suffering are sectors like hospitality, where young people and women are overrepresented.

"I think there is still perhaps a job security issue there."

For some women it will be particularly acute with pakeha women suffering less of an impact than Māori women or women with disabilities.

"The pandemic is having a gendered effect, but it's also intersecting with these other important aspects of people's lives," says Dr Thorpe.

"The effects are not being felt evenly by all women, and some groups are being much more heavily impacted than others."

The pandemic has also created an economic climate of inflation which could intensify the gender pay gap. The cost of living is going up, but wages aren't matching it.

"How fast you come out of this situation and get a fair deal is to some extent going to depend on how proactive you are asking for a pay rise," says Zollner.

"The evidence suggests that men are a bit better at that than women who wait to be told what they're worth to some extent."

Women are more likely to take on the unpaid work of looking out for friends and family, dropping off groceries and planning isolation meals than men during outbreaks.

"Women are definitely picking up a lot of emotional labour," says Dr Thorpe.

"They are having to make decisions, day-to-day decisions, about risk calculations for their families, for themselves, for their children."

The Government knows women are being hit hard by the COVID pandemic. 

The Ministry for Women warns that the 'existing inequalities such as the gender pay gap and occupational segregation.. mean that women are more susceptible to economic hardship and less resilient against COVID-19's economic impacts".

However, Finance Minister Grant Robertson's big economic recovery fund, the Shovel Ready fund, went to infrastructure projects which are male dominated. 

"I think that those industries that were targeted were really important because it was to get the economy moving again," says Minister for Women Jan Tinetti.

The OECD is urging governments to pursue targeted policy to close gender gaps and level the playing field. 

Targeted funding for women has been minimal for women in New Zealand, but Tinetti insists changes are coming.

"One of the areas that we are doing further investigation around is pay," she says. 

"Transparency is an example. We know that pay negotiations can be difficult for women at times, and so therefore we're really interested in pay transparency.

"We're also looking at the barriers towards putting women in this situation of the precarious nature of the work that they do. And so an example of that is childcare."

The pandemic is also creating a job shortage because of those off caring or isolating and a lack of immigration which could be a silver lining for women. 

"Potentially the labour shortages that we've seen also mean that women are getting a chance, perhaps to do more roles where they haven't had the traditional experience that employers might think were necessary," says Zollner.

"That's a real plus, but it's not going to suddenly change attitudes and change gender roles." 

That would take a shake up bigger than a global pandemic."

Watch Newshub Nation 9:30am Saturday/10am Sunday on TV3, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Newshub Nation is supported by NZ On Air.