The budget has failed to combat the pink recession and support older women: It’s now up to business

Fay-Calderone-budget-failed-older-women

Fay Calderone is a partner at Hall & Wilcox with a focus on employment and workplace relations. Source: Hall & Wilcox.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably challenged most workplaces and employees.

It has shone the spotlight on work, life and caring arrangements, including for children and elderly relatives.

Some employees have been, and continue to be, more adversely affected.

These issues will not self-correct without focus, investment, diligence and perseverance by government, employers and industry groups positioned to make a difference.

Gender under fire

In its report COVID-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive, the McKinsey Global Institute estimates women make up two-fifths of the global labour force but have suffered more than half of the total job-losses resulting from the pandemic.

A reason listed for these statistics is the burden of unpaid care for children, the elderly and the sick, which is disproportionately taken on by women.

These global statistics translate to Australia, with the Workplace Gender Equality Index and the Financy Women’s Index reporting that women lost 162,000 jobs in accommodation and food services in the June 2020 quarter compared to 118,000 jobs that were lost by men.

This is heightened by the fact that more women than men work in casual roles with less than 12 months of continuous employment, which makes them ineligible for JobKeeper payments.

Double jeopardy

Older workers are another group that have been identified as particularly vulnerable.

With the transition to full-time work from home, older employees may struggle to adapt to new processes and the use of technology.

Further, the return to the physical workplace may also cause challenges for older employees as they are inherently more vulnerable to COVID-19 as a result of their health and comorbidities.

Employees over 60 who previously worked in frontline roles may not be able to return to these roles in the same capacity as prior to the pandemic.

In many ways, older women are facing double jeopardy as a result of the pandemic.

Employers must be mindful of current government directions regarding return to the workplace to ensure that older employees are accommodated for. Employers will need to check the different state or territory government directions before insisting employees return to work and the workplace.

They must, at all times, be cognisant of their paramount obligation to ensure the health and safety of their employees at work, wherever work may be.

Employers must consider the varying circumstances of employees whose capacity to work have been impacted because of vulnerability or caring responsibilities during the pandemic when contemplating promotions, and the potential for career progression, to avoid a further extension of the gender pay gap and diminishing progress of women into leadership roles.

The Australian Public Sector (APS) has demonstrated a flexible approach to utilise the varying skills of its employees.

The APS responded to the Department of Health’s call for additional staff to support the COVID-19 national response by redeploying 200 staff from various APS agencies, on three- to six-month transfers and short-term secondments.

This response is a positive strategy by APS to maintain staff engagement and meet work demands and priorities arising from COVID-19.

The use of internal staff provides certainty to employees in these unprecedented times and also allows them to showcase their individual strengths and skillset.

Making flexible work work

There has, for some time, been a stigma attached to employees who worked flexibly who were often perceived as lacking ambition or commitment to their careers.

Despite flexible work not being a measure of efficiency or productivity employees, many employees working flexibly have been disadvantaged in relation to pay and progression in the workplace.

Both men and women have suffered adverse consequences for accessing flexible work, and indeed, men were in some instances more likely to be adversely affected for doing so.

In the workplace, it is essential that employers do not perpetuate this disadvantage through workplace practices.

With more employees working from home or flexibly, some managers may, for example, be inclined to ‘check-in’ on or insist on video calling employees who they perceive may be ‘distracted’ by caring for her children or to set more rigid reporting requirements that would ordinarily be expected of other employees or while in the office.

As the dust of the emergency response to the pandemic settles, and flexible work becomes the new normal, employers need to be cautious to continue to accommodate and trust employees working remotely, even when they believe the arrangements may not be ideal.

As we evolve to a new normal, employers need to consider methods to better accommodate flexible work and ensure inclusion by rethinking performance reviews, pay progression, promotions and the benchmarks for progression to executive roles.

Employers, it’s time to take the wheel

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the workplace and the way employees will work in the future.

Government stimulus and initiatives have been announced this week may marginally shift the deal, but the consensus has been loud and clear: it is not near enough to redress the damage caused by the pink recession and redress the double jeopardy faced by older women.

The JobMaker hiring credit, in particular, caps out at 35 years of age for eligible employees and halves the hiring credit to eligible business who hire employees over 29.

An incentive and lever pulled to address concerning rates of youth unemployment that is sure to perpetuate the double jeopardy already faced by unemployed women over 35, many of whom may also be caring for children, challenged to access affordable childcare and looking down the barrel of caring for ageing parents.

The outcome could be dire.

It’s time for employers to take the wheel and make a difference.

If smaller private sector businesses recovering from the pandemic are opportunistically hiring to access the JobMaker hiring credit, then larger, well-placed employers in industries including the public sector need to step up to fill the gaps and reap the benefit from the talent that may otherwise be left behind.

This will not happen by chance.

It is not expected to be redressed by further government stimulus. It will not happen without a strategic focus and diligence.

Given the irrefutable benefits that organisations reap from diversity and inclusion, and how far we still have to go to ensure gender equity in the workplace, it would indeed be jeopardy several times over to lose momentum.

Now is certainly not the time to lose momentum.

This article was first published on LinkedIn.

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