When the axe falls, it falls on women, too.

March 31, 2014
older 'unemployed' woman back view

Two of my friends lost their jobs recently, both women in their early 60s. No cameras will record their last day at work. They don’t make cars, or wear hard hats. They don’t work in aluminium smelters or fly Qantas planes. They work for government. One is a casualty of the restructure at TAFE, the other of a federal government purge of a legal tribunal. There are no good TV images in their line of work.

As job losses mount, the public focus has been squarely on men. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but the impression I retain from the recent announcements of industry closures is of distressed or dazed blokes leaving large industrial work sites en masse.

But I want to remind you it’s tough out there for women, too. Around 800 jobs, for example, will go at Sensis, the company that produces the White and Yellow pages; about half the employees are women. Unglamorously, they sit at desks, they work the phones. The imminent squeeze on the public service and social spending after the May budget is likely to have a disproportionate effect on women. Women comprise almost 60 per cent of the Federal public service, and in some areas such as the Department of Human Services which runs Centrelink, Medicare and the Child Support Agency, much more. The average age of a public servant is around 40.

At Qantas, maintenance crews are not the only workers affected by the scheduled loss of 5000 jobs. According to Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Services Union NSW/ACT, most of the workers that will go in the next round will be women. They’re the back office workers at airports; their average age is 48. They do the airline’s administration, the payroll, the finances. As well, it’s mainly women who work at the airport check-in counters, shepherd passengers onto the plane, and do the customer service jobs. “In the past the job losses were in heavy maintenance and in IT,” Sally told me. “In this lot of 5,000, it’s 80 per cent women.”

Losing a job can be devastating for men and women, especially if you’re over 45.  Let me say from the outset I’m totally sympathetic to men in this situation. A father’s wage, usually bigger than a mother’s, is vital in a one or two-income family. But that story is well understood. Less obvious is the extent of women’s job losses and their impact. A woman’s plight is often no less drastic because she worked for TAFE rather than bolted cars.  In the case of one of the women I know, she’s moving back in with her mother.

Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve learnt the figures for unemployment and under-unemployment are worse for women. For example, female full-time unemployment in February was very high at 7.1 per cent compared to 5.6 per cent for men. The overall unemployment rate for women was 6.3 per cent compared to 5.8 for men. At every age, from the teenage years through to the 60s, women are less likely to be in the workforce when they’d like to be there, and if they have some work, they’re more likely than men to be under-employed, wanting more hours. If they lose their jobs women aged 45 to 64 face a longer average period of unemployment – 44.8 weeks compared to 39.5 weeks for men. It’s no picnic for men. But it can be rotten for women, too.

It’s often assumed women workers can more easily pick up jobs in the services sector. To some extent that’s true. In child care and aged care, the demand is high, and trained nurses can probably always secure work. But it’s also true that a swathe of service jobs that women traditionally filled, in call centres or doing clerical work for example, has been outsourced to India and the Philippines. More than 80,000 jobs in the services and financial sectors were moved offshore over the four-year period to 2012, according to a report by the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research. The report, for the Australian Services Union and the Finance Sector Union, did not say how many new jobs were created in Australia. But Sally McManus said: “Massive offshoring of jobs has occurred in the past 10 years, nearly all from ‘feminised’ industries.”

For many women their hold on a decent job is precarious. It doesn’t take much to plunge them from the middle-class into penury. Veronica Sheen’s excellent study shows what can happen to women who lose good jobs after the age of 40. Even those with some education and skills can enter a world of unemployment punctuated by casual, low-paid work. “Once they lose secure, permanent jobs, many never go back,” Veronica told me. She fears the growth of casual, insecure jobs will increasingly affect men as it already has done women.

Not every unemployed woman has a partner who’ll help support her. A significant proportion – 29 per cent – of women aged 40-59 were living without a partner in 2011, according to figures provided to me by Lixia Qu, of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. More than half were single mothers. These women need work. Politicians and policy makers need to be reminded that when the axe falls, it falls on women, too. Their wage is often crucial; it’s not pocket-money. Women need job assistance, retraining and compassion just as much as men do.

Please tell us about your experience in the workplace, and out of it.

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