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Advancing gender equality beyond the COVID-19 pandemic

Sex Discrimination

Senate Select Committee on COVID-19: Public Hearing
September 22, 2020
Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner


Thank you for inviting me to appear before you today.

I am convinced that Australia’s recovery from COVID-19 will be more rapid and more successful if we can unleash the potential of our whole population - men and women. Without positive action however, I fear that Australia’s progress towards gender equality will be set back a generation, to the detriment of us all.

As you have heard today, women are disproportionately on the frontline of our fight against COVID-19, they also have faced great job losses, and increased risk of violence.

I welcome efforts by the Australian government to introduce quick, short-term measures to address some of these economic and physical risks. Australia can be rightly proud of its efforts in this early stage of the pandemic.

However, there is more to be done. Today, I wish to outline three priority areas for the government’s response to COVID-19 moving forward: economic action, social action, and decision-making frameworks.

Economic action

Firstly, economic action. Well established research  by McKinsey has identified  increasing  women’s participation in the  paid workforce  as the most  effective  lever  to boost Australia’s GDP and household income.

The current period provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remove the structural and systemic barriers that impede women’s full participation in the paid workforce once and for all.

There are three steps we should take immediately. Firstly, we must remove disincentives to work that are embedded in the childcare subsidy, income tax and family tax benefit system. Increasing the affordability of  early  childhood education and care  boosts economic output by directly increasing women’s participation and productivity in the paid workforce. It also benefits children’s development, may contribute to economic confidence to lift fertility rates and supports an important female dominated workforce. I note the recent KPMG report that proposes reform to the Child Care Subsidy to achieve this longer term aim.

Secondly, we must tackle gender segregation in our industries and professions. Job creation efforts are important, but care must be taken to ensure that they do not solely target male-dominated industries like construction. All stimulus initiatives should be analysed for their differing impacts on male- and female-dominated industries – feminised industries should not be left behind. Re-skilling opportunities should be created for the under-represented gender in male- and female-dominated industries. And we must ensure these workplaces are safe and free from sexual harassment by implementing the recommendations in my recent Respect@Work Report.

Thirdly, we must ensure that our industrial and financial rules are fair and recognise the undue burden of caring responsibilities that women undertake impacting their economic security. Industrial relations reforms, superannuation arrangements and parental leave entitlements can all support improved job and economic security for women.

Social action

We know that focusing on  economic changes  whilst failing to address  societal constraints  will undermine progress. Now is the moment to comprehensively tackle  gender-based violence, with long-lasting measures beyond the welcome domestic violence support package announced by the government in March.

There are several ways in which the government could improve our response levers to violence against women, which I recently outlined before your House colleagues’ Inquiry into Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence. These include developing a gender-responsive national housing strategy, expanding online service provision in courts, and building capacity in the response system to tackle technology-facilitated abuse. The government should also provide sustained funding to implement primary prevention work addressing the underlying drivers of violence, including under the Second National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children.

Decision making frameworks

Lastly, I want to mention the importance of inclusive government decision-making. Decisions are most effective when they are made by people with diverse experience and knowledge. It is imperative that women be included in decision-making roles in our pandemic response, and that decision-makers and government meaningfully engage with those with gender expertise. Of course, decision-makers also need a strong evidence base, which means we must collect gender disaggregated data throughout this crisis, data like that collected by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

It will be important for government, business and the community to work together to remove barriers to women’s workforce participation and ensure that women are safe from violence in the pandemic period and beyond. Having had some time to adjust our policy levers to our new reality, and with the federal budget and refresh of the Women’s Economic Security Statement imminent, now is the perfect time for the government to accelerate its progress in combating gender inequality and advancing Australia’s economic recovery. COVID-19, for all its tragedy, has illustrated how quickly government and business can respond - and communities can adapt - when systems and structures are changed in the common interest.

Let’s seize this moment to advance gender equality in Australia.

Kate Jenkins

Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner

Sex Discrimination