Economy

Why Australia’s future is female and the outlook for male-dominated industries is bleak

Bernard Keane /

A long-term shift to a more female-oriented workforce in Australia has accelerated in recent years, with Australia’s jobs boom heavily favouring women as female-dominated service industries expand rapidly.

In the year to August, according to ABS data, 1.4 jobs for women were created for every one for a man, with over 182,000 new jobs taken by women compared to less than 130,000 jobs for men. That’s a significant acceleration in female job creation compared to the five years to August 2019, during which 713,000 female jobs were created compared to 573,000 for men.

That, in turn, was a faster rate of female job creation than the five years to 2014. In February this year, the number of employed women topped six million, and they now make up 47% of the workforce, up from 46% in 2014.

And while women continue to dominate part-time job creation, they increasingly dominate full-time job creation. The traditional male dominance of full-time jobs switched gears in the three years to August 2019, with new full-time jobs roughly equally split between men and women, 326,000 to 316,000. In the year to August, however, 116,000 new full-time jobs went to women compared to 70,000 men.

Why? Our five fastest-growing industries are administration and support, health and social care, education, accommodation and food services and construction. The first four of those are either predominantly or, in the case of health and social care and education, heavily female.

Only construction is male dominated, and construction employment is already contracting as the residential property boom disappears in the rear-view mirror.

The list of slow-growing or shrinking industries is topped by manufacturing, a heavily male industry, followed by information media and telecommunications, another male-dominated sector. Utilities has been growing fast, but is relatively small (like mining, which has been static). Only transport, 78% male, is a major and fast-growing sector.

Professional services, which is 59% male, also grew strongly — 24% over five years. Rental and hiring services and retail, both slow-growing or shrinking sectors, are predominantly but not heavily female.

Our ageing population is a major driver of the expansion of our most female industry: health and social care. But the Turnbull government’s embrace of Labor’s spending plans for health and education turbocharged this. Within some sub-sectors, the phenomenon is even stronger.

Preschool and school education, which at over 660,000 employees is bigger than most industries, is 73% female and grew by 25% in the five years to 2019. The residential care workforce, which is 80% female and has over a quarter of a million workers, grew 26%.

The outlook for male-dominated industries, however, is bleak. Manufacturing has collapsed in recent years; its current level of 855,000 is its lowest ever. (It isn’t the closure of the car manufacturing industry; the transport equipment manufacturing sub-sector has been stable or growing in the last couple of years.)

The cyclical nature of construction means it will eventually bounce back but it is unlikely to provide the kind of strong growth of recent years again until the 2020s. Mining is too small and is unlikely to see strong growth again given the rising level of automation; male-dominated agriculture is small and getting smaller as an employer.

This shift in jobs growth has flow-on effects. Health and social care and education are the two sectors with the strongest wages growth in recent years. But in construction — despite the Coalition’s hysteria about the “militant” CFMMEU — strong growth hasn’t translated into wage rises. Women aren’t merely getting more jobs, they’re getting bigger pay rises than men.

This feminisation of the workforce is a long-term story, driven by an end to formal discrimination against women, rising house prices that demand two incomes, more access to child care and the switch in western economies to service industries traditionally dominated by women (and traditionally underpaid and undervalued).

The concomitant decline in traditional blue collar jobs in western economies has been blamed for the alienation of older blue collar white males and the rise of populism, though the benefits for society of women having greater opportunity and economic empowerment (and why men won’t enter certain professions) have received less attention.

At a time of relatively high employment, an acceleration in the level of job creation for women may have no side effects. In a prolonged construction downturn and rising unemployment, however, a pivot to a female-dominated workforce might prompt more of the kind of alienation and bitterness that marks sectors of the electorate here and in other western countries, especially if men remain reluctant to enter service industries.

This article was first published by Crikey.

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Bernard Keane

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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