Australian Women and the Future of Work

26 June 2020




FRIDAY, 26 JUNE 2020


We are here today on Wurundjeri land, and I want to acknowledge the traditional owners, and the elders of that community, past and present, and any people of Indigenous descent who are here with us today.

Thank you to the McKell Institute, and to HESTA, for hosting this discussion today.

One of my earliest memories is a conversation I had with my mum when I was four. She looked at me right in the eye and said, ‘Clare, whatever you do in your life, you must always have your own money.’ It was something she repeated to me throughout my childhood.

It was an odd thing to say to a small child. I can still see her face now – fierce, emotional, urgent.

Down the track I understood why.

My mum grew up watching my grandmother have to plead with my grandfather for grocery money. 

She grew up in a family and a community where men used their financial power to control the women around them. That behaviour was not universal, but it was commonplace.

My grandmother was a strong person. But she had a grade four education. The Supporting Mother’s Benefit didn’t exist. Working wasn’t really an option.

No money, no choices, no freedom.

My grandmother fought to get her kids educated.

She put up with it, so her own children wouldn’t have to.

And my mother never wanted that to happen to me.

This speech is not about me – not at all. I share that story because it illustrates that the issue of women and the future of work is not only about crucial questions of wages and security and entitlements.

It is also about who has power in a society. Who has control, who has choices, who has freedom.

Today, I want to set out a few observations about how some groups of Australian women might be affected by the future of work.

And how Labor – which has been concerned about questions of economic power for 129 years – can do better by Australian women.

Not so we can tell women how to live. But so they have choices.

First, a few caveats. I am not only concerned with women and their future.

This speech is one of a series on the major determinants of the future of work for all Australians. Your future of work will depend: on where you live, who you are, and what you can do.

The first speech, delivered to the Chifley Research Centre in December last year, was about how where you live affects your economic opportunities.

Today’s speech is about women and the future of work, and next month I will speak about the changing nature of men’s work is presenting huge difficulties for families and communities around the country.

Later in the year, I’ll speak about age and skills.

Why Gender

Gender will be a very significant driver of how Australians experience the future of work.

That’s because Australia’s labour market is highly gender segregated.

Carpentry is 99% male. Childcare educators are 95% female. Truck drivers are 97% male. And 89% of registered nurses are female.

Some may think notions of male and female work are a hangover of a bygone era. This is not true. The gender segregation of our labour market has been static for 20 years and there is some evidence that these trends are becoming more pronounced over time.

In some parts of the labour market – especially in white-collar professions – gender segregation is not as much of a feature. Differences between men and women exist, but they are not as substantial. Today, I don’t want to talk about women on boards, or female CEOs or equal pay for female executives.

Today my concern is the roughly two-thirds of Australian women of working age who do not have a university degree.

COVID and its impact on women

Gender segregation is not just about the kind of work women do. There are lots of ways different expectations on men and women play out in their working lives. COVID has provided us with a rare window into some of these impacts.  

Julie Collins MP, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Women, has been pointing these out for months now. I want to mention six main differences.

First, women are congregated in sectors immediately affected by the downturn, which is partly why more women have lost work since the recession began. Australian Bureau of Statistics data released last month shows the hardest hit sector was accommodation and food services, with about a third of this entire workforce losing their jobs. The next hardest hit sector has been arts and recreation services, where employment dropped 27 per cent. Most of the workers in these sectors are women.

Second, whether in those areas of the economy or others, women are more likely to be part-time and casual – on average, their employment is more precarious than for men. As a consequence, they are more likely to have had their hours reduced or be let go altogether over the last three months.

Third, women were more likely to have been excluded from JobKeeper because they are casual workers.

In the food and accommodation sector, there are an estimated 92,600 men who have been casuals employed for less than 12 months, compared to 117,600 women. In the health care and social assistance sector, there are five times as many women who have been employed on a casual basis for less than a year than men.

Fourth, women are more likely to work in frontline roles. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 75 percent of Australia’s health professionals – including pharmacists, doctors, midwives, nurses, social and welfare workers, and medical laboratory scientists – are women. Other frontline roles such as early learning educators, retail workers and cleaners are also predominantly female.

Fifth, women have shouldered more of the increase in domestic burden during COVID. Preliminary statistics from a study being conducted at University of Melbourne suggest that while unpaid care went up substantially for men and women, women have borne the lion’s share of extra work.

Sociologist Lyn Craig says early research shows that, during COVID, housework went up over an hour a day for women and less than half an hour for men – and secondary caring activity, such as supervising, went up two hours a day for women and a bit less than an hour for men.

Finally, the impact of the superannuation drawdown policy will have a significant gender impact because it will exacerbate the huge gap in retirement savings between men and women.

HESTA’s data shows that a high proportion of young women in particular have drained their super balances between 60-and-78 percent. The median account balance of HESTA’s younger members is now $1049. Dr Andrew Charlton’s research shows that a 20-year-old who accesses the full $20,000, the maximum available under the scheme, will forgo $120,000 in retirement.

Today, the average superannuation balance for women at retirement is $160,000. This policy will have lifelong impacts for many Australian women (and for many men), materially affecting their quality of life in retirement.

Women and underemployment

This downturn is being described as a Pink Collar Recession. I get that, it’s accurate, and I hope well understood.

What I want to contribute to the discussion today is to provide some new data which shows that even before COVID some groups of Australian women were already going backwards.

Today I am releasing data as part of an ongoing joint project with Dr Daniel Mulino – a respected economist and the new MP for Fraser in Victoria – and the Australian Parliamentary Library and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

So what did we already know? Women are roughly as likely to be unemployed as men in Australia. But they are quite a bit more likely to be underemployed. Female underemployment (those women who have some work, but not enough) has moved around a sobering 8-to-12 percent over the last 20 years.

What’s been missing is detailed, localised data. Who are these women, where do they live, what are their characteristics?

When we come down from that national view and look at how underemployment breaks down by gender, age, region and skill level, the numbers are no longer sobering. They are scary.

The pre-coronavirus data shows significant differences in the employment opportunities for groups of women. There is one cohort in particular I want to focus on.

These women are the unseen human face of Australia’s underemployment crisis.

They are young, they live in regional towns and the outer suburbs of our big cities, and they did not to study much beyond high school.

These women are likely to work in hospitality and sales, and as cleaners and laundry workers. Their largest area of employment is as carers, aides and community services workers.

When governments fly over the underemployment numbers at a national level, they’re too high to see the dire situation of many of these women, who have been locked out of the growth our nation has enjoyed over the last decade. 

For many of these women, inadequate hours at work is an endemic, long-standing part of their working lives. The labour market is just not meeting their needs – not even close.

Remember – underemployment doesn’t measure those who are happy to be part time. It’s those who can and want to work more. And the ABS tells us that the average additional hours being sought by an underemployed Australian is not an hour here or there. It’s an average of 15 hours a week – literally hundreds of dollars a week of missing income for rent and food and bills.

What scares me is how much the situation has deteriorated in the seven years since the Coalition was elected in 2013.

Over this period:

Underemployment of women in lower-skilled jobs on the New South Wales Central Coast went from 22% in 2013 to 34% shortly before coronavirus;

On the New South Wales North Coast the figure jumped from 26% to 35%;

Inland country New South Wales went from 19% up to 24%;

Greater suburban Perth went from 17% to 25%;

Western Victoria stepped up from 22% to 26%;

The Northern Territory doubled from 7% to 14%;

South Eastern Queensland went from 21% to 24%;

Tasmania rose from 26.5% to 28.5%;

The numbers I have shared with you there are underemployment.

Underemployment is my focus today partly because these numbers are new, and partly because this has been the big change for these women over the past decade or so.

If we add unemployment to those numbers this gives us the underutilisation rate – the share of these women who want to work, but either can’t get a job at all or have some work but can’t get the hours they need.

The combined numbers of under- and unemployed is where the difficulties faced by these women in their working lives are laid bare.

Before coronavirus, the underutilisation of women either in or seeking lower-skilled jobs in the Central Coast and North Coast of NSW was more than 40 percent. 

In Tasmania it was above 35 percent. In Greater Perth and South Eastern Queensland almost 30 percent.

We’re not talking about a handful of women here.

The share of women of working age who did not study beyond high school or have a Certificate II or III is 2.8m Australian women. Of those women, almost 600,000 were either underemployed or unemployed before COVID.

In other words, almost 600,000 women being ignored by a Government that loves to pat itself on the back for apparently entering the COVID-19 crisis from a positon of strength. 

And now this group of women will suffer more than most in a recession that may take years to play out.

But if there is one message you take away from this speech it’s this: inadequate hours at work, and the financial pressure it brings, is not a new problem for these women. It was not created by COVID, and it will not end with COVID.

Hundreds of thousands of women have been suffering for many years in many parts of the country.

If you’re doing a fly-by of the national data, you don’t see them.

They’ve been excluded from the national discussion and completely ignored by Scott Morrison’s government. Treated as though they are invisible.

The woman at the epicentre of this neglect is a 23-year old women living in the NSW central coast. She didn’t study beyond high school, and in all likelihood works in food preparation and cleaning. She would be casually employed, and chronically unable to find the hours of work she needs to get by.

Despite almost 30 years of continuous economic growth, this woman has been left behind.

I said upfront that work is about more than money, work is also about choices.

These women are being denied the right to choose a more secure future.

They face problems that go well beyond where they go to work every day. Problems with lifelong consequences, which are not just financial.

When you’re in this kind of financial distress, buying your own home is probably going to be impossible.

Retraining is too expensive and risky – how could it be juggled with family and care responsibilities?

Relationship breakdown – horrible at the best of times – can turn into a fast track into poverty.

Getting back into work after a period at home looking after kids can be very, very hard. For some of the women we speak with, the journey back into work can take years.

Older women who make the transition later in life face these challenges, as well as the fight against age discrimination.

And we know where these problems lead. Poverty in retirement. Older women being the fastest growing group in homelessness. And a new generation of younger women with no money, and few choices.

The Treatment of Women in COVID policy

These women are not powerless.

They are underemployed, and they vote.

But in the discussions I have with these women, my sense is that many (not all) are disengaged from politics.

Some women I talk to are angry at Canberra.

But many aren’t.

They just don’t see why they should care about a place that doesn’t care about them.

When I talk to these women, they say the same thing: no one is listening.

For them Canberra feels like another country, maybe even another planet.

They see men in suits doing a lot of yelling and not much thinking.

A bunch of politicians who may as well be speaking another language.

And a system that is failing them.

If they needed another example of their secondary place in the policy discussion, Canberra’s COVID policy response is a good one.

It is abundantly clear that women have suffered more in this crisis. And yet, the first industry in line for fiscal stimulus is construction – where the workforce is 88% male. It’s great to see support for construction workers. But why only there?

Especially given two other announcements the government made more or less concurrently.

First, that childcare educators, who were until recently were being lauded as our brave frontline workers for showing up to work every day in a pandemic, are the first ones in the entire economy to be kicked off JobKeeper. That workforce is in vast majority female.

Second, the announcement that the Government’s first policy to ‘snap back’ to its pre-COVID state was to remove free childcare.

Childcare is the biggest driver of the decision of Australian women with children to work or not to work. And in a massive recession, this is the first support to be taken away. The attitude seems to be, let’s get the men back to work first. Then we will worry about the women.

This tells us everything we need to know about how this government thinks about work, how they value it and see it. The role of women here is made pretty clear: second income earner, second priority, second class citizen.

That decision was made by an expenditure review committee of five men.

And they clearly have no idea what they are on about.

I wonder if any of these ERC members have had to scramble around frantically texting friends and family looking for someone to sit with their kids while they watch cartoons so they can work a shift they can’t say no to. I know none of them have had to dash to a childcare centre, madly breastfeed and then pass the child back to a carer without even time for a cuddle.

My sense is that for most of them, someone else has taken care of these decisions and responsibilities – the juggle – for most of their working lives. This is not the case for all men, not even close. But in the world of these men, I reckon it’s always someone else who does the flex, makes the compromises and scrabbles around when the unexpected occurs.

Otherwise, they would know that these decisions will smash the wallets of families. And they have the potential to hold women back for years.

We know many women have become unemployed since COVID hit. But did you know that since February, more than 320,000 Australian women have left the labour force altogether.

Since COVID, not only are they no longer working, they are no longer looking for work. That’s more women not earning an income, more women bumped off the promotion track.

I fear that we will look back on this moment and see that it was a turning point for many Australian women in their participation in work altogether.  

Women in care

What opportunities do we have to make a difference to the lives of these women, to give them more options?

The next election is still a while away, so I’m not making policy announcements today. Indeed, these are not problems Labor can solve from opposition.

But I want to finish on one of the big opportunities.

In the Future of Work discussion, one of the prevailing public narratives is that our children will do jobs that we can’t imagine.

No doubt in some instances this will be true. After all, we didn’t know 20-years ago that ‘Instagram Influencer’ would be a viable profession.

But the hand wringing about the unknown is a bit overstated. We actually know quite a bit about the jobs of the future.

For many Australians, the future of work will be in care.

Already, the health and social services sector is huge, employing more than a million people, most of them female. This sector was the fastest growing driver of jobs over the last five years.

A growing, ageing population and rising standards for the quality of care we expect of people with additional needs means that the caring sectors will continue to grow. According to the Commonwealth’s employment projections, the healthcare and social assistance sector will create more than 250,000 jobs over the next five years. This is twice as many jobs as other major sectors.  

There is much to celebrate about this change. Not only are many jobs being created, but those jobs are being created across a range of skill levels. One of the big challenges in Australia’s modern economy is that economic opportunity isn’t always being generated near where people live. Not so with care work, where the spread of jobs mostly follows the population.   

The growth in the caring economy – an area which women are already so dominant – is an opportunity. If we could make those jobs good quality jobs, we could make a substantial difference to the lives of millions of Australians, now and in the future.

The problem is that today, many care workers are underpaid and undervalued.

Evidence given at the Aged Care Royal Commission is telling. A predominantly female aged care workforce is asking why, while doing some of the most important work in society, many are paid in the range of $21-to-$23 an hour.

I see the same with the early years workers. The work of these educators is critical. There is evidence that high quality teaching in the 18-months before primary influence can be more influential for the life outcomes of a child than the quality of teaching for the whole of primary school. And yet, the mainly female workforce is paid about half the average Australian wage.

We see this, too, when we look at highly professionalised female dominated roles such as nursing. About 10 percent of nurses earn more than $2000 a week, for example, compared to 32 percent of police or 27 percent of ambulance officers.

If these were problems of the past, slowly resolving, I would not be as concerned. But what worries me is that emerging models of care are creating new problems for these workers.

The NDIS is a Labor reform I am very proud of. It takes the choice and dignity of care and gives it to the person with disability to choose the kind of support that will most improve their quality of life. A great and worthy motivation in social policy.  

The implications for the workforce, though, are worrying. What the early NDIS years show is that many people with disability want short, frequent bursts of care at either end of the day. For the worker, that can mean piecing together shifts across multiple employers, large amounts of down time between work, and generally a pretty ragged experience of employment.

The largest major study into the working experience of NDIS workers, published by UNSW earlier this year, makes for shocking reading. It shows that NDIS workers are often poorly paid, taking on huge amounts of risk, undertaking extensive unpaid work, in highly insecure employment arrangements – including a small but rising number who are employed through digital platforms that operate a bit like Uber, where their labour is virtually auctioned. 

And the result is a growing number of women (and some men) for whom a life working in disability is intensely difficult. The day is often described to me a bit like this. You might work for an hour with one client. Commonly then spend about a quarter of that time working in the household but unpaid. They might then sit in their car in a shopping centre carpark waiting for the next job which could be a couple of hours away. And arrive home after being gone for half a day with less than $50 in their pockets.

This kind of working life was not what was intended out of NDIS. I know Labor would have implemented it differently and has been alive to these concerns from the start. But the NDIS is an important case study because consumer-driven care – where the client is in control – is a big trend in the delivery of social services. It has a lot of positive elements. But we need to create public policy that empowers individuals to make choices about their care, and create steady, reliable, dignified work for carers. And we’re not there yet.

The big picture point here is this: in each instance, whether disability or aged care or early years, the social value of this work clearly – clearly – exceeds the value we place on it economically.

There is a saying in aged care – that you might earn more washing a car than washing a grandmother.

This may be a slight exaggeration, but the point is well made. Something is really off in our labour market.

So how do we change this dynamic? I’ve spoken to a lot of experts and lifelong campaigners for improved conditions in care in the last few months. Many people in my party have spent their entire lives working on this problem.

Most point to deep perceptions about women’s work in caring as somehow being seen as an extension of the caring these women they do for free in their personal lives. And hence, it is not properly valued.

Some highlight the same, gendered view that has driven the invisibility of women in the COVID response. That in public policy, in public perception, women’s work is still considered secondary. Discretionary.

We need to affirm that women’s work is real work. That women work today not for pin money, as one academic put it to me, but because they need wages to live independent lives, as they have a right to in a modern society.

We need to set a vision for what caring work should look like, and the value it generates. And ultimately, we need to get into a virtuous cycle of better training, improved care, improved productivity and better wages.

It means, too, creating clearer ‘on ramps’ for the women I have talked about who deserve better choices about the work they do, and better access to jobs they can count on. We need to invest in getting these women access to skills, so we pay more and we get more for it. That’s the cycle in which we all win.

There is much talk at the moment about how our economy could look different after COVID. But I want everyone to note the enthusiasm with which politicians of all stripes have adopted the concepts of revitalising manufacturing and other heavy industries.

Canberra is virtually feverish at the prospect of using government policy – and presumably government funding – to revive these male-dominated industries. These are good conversations, they are important.

But the real no brainer coming out of COVID, the lasting decision that will, with absolute certainty, permanently improve the future of work for millions of Australians, is for us to work in a bipartisan way to align the social value of caring work with the economic rewards given to the predominantly female workforce.

The winners are everywhere. Better health and wellbeing for Australians. A smaller gender pay gap. Better opportunities in the regions. Reduced poverty for working women now and in retirement. And jobs of the future that millions of men and women can count on.

I get that these things are complex and expensive. Caring roles are not a solution for every under-employed Australian. Again, these are not problems Labor can fix from opposition. But there is a big upside to be grabbed here. And what else is government for, if not to secure these things for Australians?


I started out talking about my mother and I want to finish talking about my mother in law.

She lives in Northern Victoria and she is a died-in-the-wool National Party supporter. She would be appalled to be in the speech of a Labor parliamentarian and has made an exception just for me.

She is the backbone of her country town. Kids and now grandkids in the country school, she’s everywhere you need her to be and she makes the best pav roll in the district.

And, she is an aged care nurse. She is in her sixties, the main income earner since the family sold their dairy farm.

She does the most important work in her community. She gives the elderly people – many she has known for her whole life – a happy last six months. And she is there at the very end.

Every day, she creates more social value than any of us in this room. Giving people comfort, helping them with the most intimate tasks. Showing respect to people at the most vulnerable moment of their lives.

I called her to ask if she would be willing to be in my speech today, and all she wanted to talk about is her patients. These workers are worth their weight in gold.

All the talk about the critical role of frontline workers over the last six months doesn’t mean much we can’t do better by them.

And we need to do better by the women I have talked today about more broadly, in caring roles and beyond.

There is a big group of women out there who are not being listened to. Who are getting ignored by Scott Morrison’s government. Women who are treated as though they are invisible.

If we want to do better by these women, we have to see them, and we have to hear them. The difficulties in their lives are intensely real, with long-term consequences. Australia’s standard of living has grown by multiples in the last few of generations. But the choices these women have faced have not grown at the same pace.

Australia should not knowingly go into a future of work where some get better opportunities than ever, while others go backwards. But that is what is happening. Their situation is not inevitable. There is a lot – a lot – we can do to give these women more choices.  

In a country like Australia, that’s what they deserve.