Why the coronavirus is a crisis for women

Women comprise more than 76% of IEU membership and more than 70% of workers in the health and care sectors globally.

As IEU members are very much aware, the coronavirus pandemic has called on all of us to respond in a variety of creative and resilient ways, including meeting the challenges of remote teaching and learning.

Union members in all sectors of non government education have stepped up to provide education and care to their students and to support families whose lives and work have been severely disrupted. Principals, teachers in early childhood, teachers in primary and secondary schools and post-secondary settings, counsellors and support staff in many diverse roles, have adapted to the challenges of working from home and/or from their usual workplaces with sometimes very different work routines.

Members have been holding chapter meetings by telephone conference or via online platforms, finding creative ways to engage collectively and to ensure their voices are heard by their union and their employers.

At times members have needed to act together in relation to work health and safety issues and to protect their working conditions. In the words of one member: “We need to work flexibly and creatively but not to throw out our hard-won protections in the enterprise agreement and the work practices agreement.”

COVID-19 has also provided an opportunity to reflect on the nature of work and the intersection of work and family life, including the implications of working from home and the care of family members.

Women comprise more than 76% of IEU membership and more than 70% of workers in the health and care sectors globally. Women also form the majority of carers for families, the ill and the vulnerable. The majority of care givers at home and in paid work are women. The impact of COVID-19 on women as workers and carers is therefore substantial.

As we know from the IEU’s Equal Remuneration Case for early childhood teachers, there is still a significant gender issue in the undervaluing of work mainly performed by women, and this is especially evident in early childhood, in aged care and in the community services sector.

Women are also potentially more vulnerable to employment insecurity. We can specifically identify these groups: casual teachers; support staff in schools; and teachers in early childhood education centres. Within the context of COVID-19, the IEU has been strong in its advocacy for casuals and for protecting support staff against possible stand downs.

In the words of the United Nations, COVID-19 is not just a health issue but also a profound shock to societies and economies – and women are at the heart of care and response efforts. Leonora Risse, a lecturer in economics at RMIT University, National Chair of the Women in Economics Network of Australia, and a Research Fellow with the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University, recently analysed Australia’s COVID-19 ‘frontline’ workforce. “Who is keeping us healthy and alive, who is keeping us clean, who is keeping us fed, supplied and commuting, who is looking after our families, and who is keeping us safe?” she asked.

She goes on to say: “With governments deciding to keep schools and early education and childcare centres open in Australia during the pandemic, I have added these occupations to this list too.”

These reflections on the work and care implications of COVID-19 are crucial for women and men as we navigate the current situation and look to the future.

Pam Smith
Assistant Secretary