The gendered impact of COVID-19

Every woman deserves the right to economic security, says Donna de Zwart, CEO of Fitted for Work, who helps women from all walks of life and understands the economic and social challenges faced by older Australians.

“And we believe that the best way for a woman to achieve that is through employment,” says Ms de Zwart, whose organisation has helped nearly 40,000 women across the country over the past 15 years. “All of our services revolve around helping a woman get ready for work, helping her find work, helping her stay in work, and navigate the world of work. We see women aged from 16 through to 65-plus; now we are seeing a huge increase in the number of older women seeking our services.”

Job losses, reduced hours, and economic and social insecurities have disrupted the retirement plans of many older Australians, forcing some to upskill as they re-enter the workforce.

“The fastest growing population of women that we see are older women, 45-plus, a very worrying statistic for us, particularly with what is happening with COVID,” says Ms de Zwart.

Economic and social challenges associated with COVID-19 have disproportionately affected women. Research has found that women have experienced a greater reduction in hours worked than men and have taken on a greater proportion of caring and housework responsibilities. There has been an increase in domestic partner violence, disproportionately affecting women, and the predominantly female healthcare workforce has placed women on the frontline of the pandemic.

Australia has a gender pay gap of 14 per cent, meaning that the average woman earns $253.60 less per week than her male peers. Over a lifetime, this means lower savings, fewer assets and smaller superannuation balances.

How COVID-19 has affected Fitted For Work’s client base
“In terms of the cohort of women we’re starting to see, we’re starting to see the impact of COVID-19 disproportionately impacting women. Women who have never been on any sort of government benefit before in their lives are suddenly finding themselves needing our help, and really the avalanche is still coming,” says Ms de Zwart.

“I think when the second round of JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments stop next year, unless there is something else put into place, it’s going to be like falling off a cliff for many, many, women. I think the most disturbing thing that I’ve heard about COVID at the moment is that while we know that more women than men have lost their jobs in this crisis so far, 320,000 Australian women have just stopped looking for work.

“So, they’re not being counted anymore, they’ve just stopped looking for work. This tells us that women are overwhelmed, they have lost hope and they’ve lost their confidence. This concerns us greatly, because when a woman loses her economic independence that changes a whole lot of things in her life and has a huge impact on her family and her community.

How COVID has affected Fitted for Work?
“We’ve been very lucky because all of our services can be delivered virtually,” says Ms de Zwart. “Even though we do deliver services face to face, we have been able to transition very quickly when we had to close our doors because we were already delivering virtually. We can deliver all of our services to any woman anywhere in Australia.

“And all of our services are tailored. So, if, for example, you’re someone who has been in a domestic violence situation for 20 years, and you haven’t worked, you’ll probably need the whole suite of services, whereas if you’re someone who has been working in a corporate role and you’ve just lost your job, you probably need some help with tweaking your resume but you may not need our dressing service, you might need some help with Zoom interviews and that type of thing. It just depends on the woman herself.”

How to increase the economic security of Australian women
“We can talk about the problems, but we need solutions,” says Ms de Zwart. “Our speciality and expertise is around employment, and we believe that there needs to be more work done on creating jobs for women. So, it’s great that the government is putting forward a number of physical infrastructure projects, but we know that less than 2 per cent of those roles in construction are held by women.”

Male-dominated industries
Some male dominated industries including construction and transport have recorded a decline in female representation over the past 20 years, while others including electricity, gas, water and mining have seen an increase. However, across both female and male-dominated industries, men make up a majority of leadership positions.

While Ms de Zwart encourages women to achieve success across all industries, she notes that some have more barriers to overcome. Even in more female-dominated industries, such as healthcare, social assistance, education and training, she says, we need to see change.

“We have to overhaul those industries the casualisation of those industries, the low pay, the working conditions, the lack of career opportunities.

“We’ve seen whole industries pivot overnight because of COVID, we’ve seen health, telehealth, go online, education go online, lots of industries have had to go online. Now what that has done is open up working from home and potential opportunities for women to move into those sectors.

“There are lots of allied roles and support roles associated with that, which could be an inroad for women into the STEM sector. But we need to make it easy for them. We need to help them with that transition, and we need to show them what the pathway is. And it needs to be a short and sharp pathway. Women don’t have the time to go back to TAFE or university for three years, they need to feed their families now. Or feed themselves now.” 

Ms De Zwart encourages any woman in need of support, services and training to contact the Fitted for Work team. “There is no shame in asking for help,” she says. “We have seen it all, heard it all, we know how important it is to have income. Don’t be shy to ask for help. For those who are, perhaps, in a more comfortable position, you probably have something to offer too.”

You can also join an inclusive, like-minded community of Australian women sharing tools and tips on finance, housing and employment at the Cherry Women Facebook group.

Are you currently living in retirement or planning for retirement? Have the economic and social challenges of COVID-19 affected your retirement plan? Have you noticed your gender affecting your financial success or security?

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Disclaimer: All content on YourLifeChoices website is of a general nature and has been prepared without taking into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. It has been prepared with due care but no guarantees are provided for the ongoing accuracy or relevance. Before making a decision based on this information, you should consider its appropriateness in regard to your own circumstances. You should seek professional advice from a financial planner, lawyer or tax agent in relation to any aspects that affect your financial and legal circumstances.

Written by Liv Gardiner

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