Data released by Stats NZ today shows the impact of Covid-19 on New Zealand jobs during the June quarter was disproportionately felt by women. Mary Jo Vergara from KiwiEconomics breaks down what it all means.
Women have historically fared well in times of war and crisis. During the Second World War, there was a dramatic rise in female employment as men were called to arms and women were called to the factories. There was an increasing demand for female labour to fill job vacancies left by servicemen. In September 1939, the female labour force was estimated at 180,000. In peacetime, it would have been expected to increase by 5000 every four years. But by December 1943, 228,000 women were employed in New Zealand.
And again, female labour was in demand during the economic recovery period in the 1990s. The recovery phase following the Rogernomics era was tentative, and employers sought flexible workforces. With part-time employment a popular option among women, female employment was barely disrupted. In fact, female employment was left relatively unscathed during the extensive restructuring in the 1970s and 1980s. And it all boiled down to the positioning of women in the labour market and the fact that finance minister Roger Douglas’ reforms targeted heavily male-dominated industries such as manufacturing.
Similarly, with the GFC, the financial sector was hardest hit, with redundancies left, right and centre. Because it was predominately male-dominated sector, the hit to employment in the recession that followed was softer on women than men. But the Covid-19 pandemic has created a recession like no other.
New Zealand was under level four and three lockdown for 50 days. With stay-at-home orders issued, businesses shut up shop and the service industry bore the brunt. And for the same reasons that male employment was hardest hit in previous crises, women are especially vulnerable this time around – over 60% of sales workers and over 70% of hospitality workers are female.
Today’s June quarter labour market statistics reflect how the lockdown has disproportionately impacted the women in the workforce. The female underutilisation rate shot up to 14.9% from 12.7% – a 29,000 increase – while the unemployment rate rose to 4.4% – a 1,000 increase. The numbers for men were more modest.
More striking is the gender breakdown of those no longer employed. Employment fell 0.4% over the period, which equated to an 11,000 fewer people in paid employment. And of those 11,000, 10,000 were women. That’s 90%! While it’s hard to believe such huge numbers, it’s clear that more women have been in the firing line.
Since lockdown, the hospitality sector has bounced back. Our proprietary transactional data shows spending at restaurants, cafes and bars have lifted from lockdown lows. But social distancing early on meant it was costly to maintain a full staff rotation. Despite now being at level one, some firms may make their smaller workforces permanent. It may take a while for female employment to return to pre-Covid levels. Because of the fiscal support to date, the numbers could have been worse, and the wage subsidy has helped many businesses remain in business, and employees remain employed. But for others, the subsidy payout may just be delaying the inevitable. Once the lifeline comes to an end, job losses will surely mount – and women are bound to be over-represented.
The war years were a turning point for women in the workforce. More women joined and more women moved into jobs traditionally carried out by men. The current recession may offer another opportunity to address the gender composition of the labour force. It may be that some women are looking to re-train to be redeployed into other industries. The door to the manufacturing and construction industries is open and these are sectors where women are largely underrepresented. Like how women were encouraged to enter the factories in the 1940s, the government’s $1.6b trade and apprenticeship training package might encourage more women to pick up the tools in the 2020s.