The pink recession: How COVID-19 triggered a perfect storm for women


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COVID-19 has triggered a perfect storm for women's finances. It has hit their typical work industries - travel, retail and hospitality - particularly hard.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has shown that women have suffered a disproportionate loss of jobs, particularly part-time work at large and medium businesses, where 125,000 women lost their jobs compared with 46,000 men from February to June.

The ABS found 5.7% of women, compared with 4.7% of men, lost their jobs from February to June across both full-time and part-time employment. Bear in mind these figures are understated due to JobKeeper arrangements.

surviving the pink recession covid19

Experts have dubbed these pandemic times a "pink recession" or a "shecession".

Losing your job during COVID-19 calls for urgent action: slashing spending, applying for government benefits, seeking rent or mortgage relief, accessing superannuation savings, searching for jobs (that often hundreds of others are applying for), or going back to study and upskilling.

When Sally, a single friend of mine, lost her job in March, she sold her home in May. Aged 60, Sally believed it was unlikely she would get another job in the media. Sally has around $280,000 in superannuation that she could draw on until she reaches 67, the qualifying age of the age pension, but she didn't want to use it all up. Sally's plan is to unlock some money to live on and downsize to either a smaller apartment or make a tree or sea change to a cheaper area.

While Sally had an asset to sell to help her through the pandemic, many women don't.

Women typically have always been in a less secure financial position than men. Before COVID-19 they earned an average of 14%, or $243 a week, less than men for the same jobs, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. In some industries the pay gap is much higher, with health care, finance, insurance, scientific and technical services recording pay gaps of more than 22% in February this year. The smallest gender pay gap is public administration and safety, with women earning 5.7% less than men.

Often women are in low-paid, part-time and undervalued work, which means they have less savings to fall back on. They typically have lower super balances, which may have been drawn on to fund their living expenses during COVID-19.

In a double whammy, there has been an explosion in their home and child-rearing duties, with 50% of women who stopped working far more likely to have taken on unpaid housework and caring roles compared with only 17.3% of men, according to 3249 people surveyed by the ANU Centre for Social Research & Methods.

The study found that unemployed women are more than twice as likely to not actively be looking for work (13.8%) than men (5.7%).

Alison Pennington, from the Australia Institute, says there need to be initiatives to create jobs for women. So far there is stimulus spending by the federal government to help the construction industry - not really a big employer of women. She says many women missed out on JobKeeper because they tended to be short-term casuals.

Labour demand has to improve to get women back into jobs, but going back to pre-COVID wages might not happen because with higher unemployment comes greater competition for jobs
and lower wages.

What is worrying for women is the prospect of long-term unemployment and narrow job prospects. Often people accept roles that are lower down the jobs ladder just to get back into the workforce, says Catherine de Fontenay, a commissioner with the Productivity Commission. She says often they don't move back up the ladder, which can have a long-term scarring effect.

De Fontenay says there is no "silver bullet" to solve unemployment, but one suggestion she puts forward is to look at your qualifications and consider study to broaden your job prospects. There is some government support for vocational courses, but you may still be out of pocket. Of course, the challenge with further education is making it relevant to job prospects.

In periods of high unemployment, employers are more likely to trial new employees as unpaid interns. While this is a potentially exploitative situation, it could lead to paid employment eventually, so avoiding this option may come at a cost.

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Susan has been a finance journalist for more than 30 years, beginning at the Australian Financial Review before moving to the Sydney Morning Herald. She edited a superannuation magazine, Superfunds, for the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, and writes regularly on superannuation and managed funds. She's also author of the best-selling book Women and Money.
Caroline Webster
September 9, 2020 5.17pm

Thank you Susan for this article and highlighting how difficult it is for women in the workforce. I am middle-aged and found myself out of a job (contracting) back in March. I have applied for countless jobs, reached interviews a number of times, and got pipped at the post several times. I have been applying for lower paid jobs, (much lower than what I am used to) and I'm not even being looked at for these positions. It's completely demoralising. I have never taken a government handout, but this time I did. I have also asked for mortgage relief, which in 3 weeks' time will be reviewed, and I will no doubt have to start paying again. I still have no job.

I have decided to try and recession-proof my career by studying cyber security, as I know that time is not on my side in the job market. People can say you cannot be discriminated against, but let's not kid ourselves, discrimination is alive and well. Just because no one talks about it doesn't mean it doesn't exist - it's the elephant in the room and no amount of "diversity" initiatives in companies makes one bit of difference. The pay disparity between men and women has been a disgusting reality for many years and doesn't look like changing if you ask me.

But I am doing as you say, upskilling and seeing where that leads me. I'll be working another 20 years so I may as well make it in something exciting.

Thank you again,


Cam Simpson
September 10, 2020 3.21pm

The option to move and and do a sea change/tree change doesn't work for people already living outside capital cities. Further, as these people get paid less, they have less super. The effect of these on women is much larger than the gender pay gap, and is made worse by the fact that their partners also suffer the lower pay/super/house value. I have strong empathy for people in their latter working years losing their job in a recession, seeing my parents and siblings working into their 70's despite health issues. The option to downsize and/or sea/tree change though makes it a much more manageable scenario than the same person already living in the regions.

Thelma Thomas
October 13, 2020 10.35am

Thank you for this story. We need his to change. People (Women) Power.