Judith Collins, Jacinda Ardern and Julie Anne Genter sitting around a table chatting about not-women (Image: Tina Tiller)

The election’s message to women losing their jobs to Covid-19: pick up a hammer

New Zealand’s main party leaders are women and yet women can’t really get onto the agenda this election. The parties are offering little to help the half of the population most likely to suffer the worst of what Covid-19 is throwing at us, Justin Giovannetti reports.

The burdens of Covid-19 will be borne disproportionately by women. The sectors of the economy worst hit by the virus are female-led, while women dominate the care providers shepherding the country through the global pandemic.

A red klaxon was set off last month when the first employment numbers came through from the age of Covid-19. It was a sobering, check-the-numbers-again moment. The data showed that 90% of the people who left the workforce in the months of April through June were women. Those who kept their jobs were left with less. Nearly 30,000 women willing to work more lost hours and became part-timers. Men did notably better on both metrics.

The government’s economic answer to Covid-19 has been to pour billions into the construction sector. It’s following the classic response to recession for nearly a century. Public works will be erected and new roads will be paved in the coming years, largely by workforces dominated by men.

The disconnect between the problem and the government’s solution has been noted by women and men across New Zealand. As has the lack of any specific policy put forward on the campaign trail to help half the population through the Covid recession and years of social and economic damage the Treasury warns will follow.

In response to the problem, the government has announced plans to move more women into the trades. Programmes have been established to make hardhats and tools more attractive to women. A number of community leaders, including Jennifer Curtin from the University of Auckland, have questioned whether asking women to become plumbers and electricians is the right response.

What’s the government doing?

The Spinoff spoke with Julie Anne Genter, the minister for women, about the government’s response to the pandemic. Genter is a Green MP and is seeking re-election on the party’s list.

“There’s no question that Covid-19’s economic fallout has disproportionately affected women,” said Genter, but she’s not happy with the use of the jobs data from August.

Genter said she received a briefing months ago that warned her of what was coming, that women outnumber men in retail, tourism and hospitality and she should be prepared for rising unemployment among women. But that doesn’t mean the numbers are as dire as they seem, she added.

“My understanding is that it isn’t so simple as just saying that 10,000 women lost their jobs. It’s just saying that in the net difference in terms of people in employment, there were more women than men that exited the workforce at that time.

“That could have been because they lost their jobs or it could have been other reasons, like they were going into education. That’s a very subtle point,” she said.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern made a similar point in mid-September when asked by The Spinoff about her party’s perceived lack of programmes for women. She said that an “assumption” that women are losing their jobs, despite making up 90% of the decline in the workforce so far during Covid-19, is wrong.

“Some of the jobseeker data at the moment is telling us that despite some of the assumptions being made, women are not the majority coming onto jobseeker [the jobseeker support benefit]. I won’t take that as a guide though because there will be those who won’t be opting in, so that’s not the best way to measure,” said Ardern.

To get women into the trades, the party has come out with a training allowance, which would help sole parents with education while caring for children. Ardern has also pointed to an expanded school lunches programme which Labour says has created 2,000 jobs.

However, most of the gain in the coming year needs to come from women moving into construction, according to Ardern. “I’m never going to assume that projects around the trades are not for women too. In fact, we’ve seen an 8% increase in women going into those apprenticeships, we need to keep driving that. These are high-skilled, high-wage jobs that have good prospects attached to them. Why shouldn’t our women take them up?”

Ardern was joined by two of her senior ministers. Phil Twyford, Labour’s transport spokesperson, said a new rule governing public sector spending now requires agencies to consider how they can provide job opportunities for people displaced by Covid-19. “In some cases that might be women; it could also be older workers, young workers and workers with disabilities,” he said.

Grant Robertson, the party’s finance spokesperson, added that the government has a programme to help people start their own businesses. That’s attractive for women losing their jobs in tourism and retail, he said.

“As you can see, there’s a wide range of responses,” Robertson said about Labour’s response to women losing their jobs. “Fulsome,” added a grinning Ardern.

Yeah, nah: The critics

Some people looking at the government’s response have been less than impressed.

Curtin, who teaches public policy in Auckland, said it’s been lacklustre and unimaginative so far. “I’m trying to work out how they see this as sufficient for women,” she said.

“There’s been huge disappointment. They’ve just come out to invest in material stuff while ignoring the social world. They didn’t envision an economy that looks different. It feels like a whole Ministry of Works thing. If women are stuck at home looking after the kids while the men are going to work, we’ll be stuck back in the 1950s – there’s a real risk of that in this rebuilding,” she added.

According to Curtin, the idea that women should just retrain in the trades implies there’s no value to what they’ve already learned. Instead of asking women to drop what they already know and learn new skills, the government could invest more in sectors where women could pick up jobs immediately, including health and child care.

There’s a risk now that any turn to austerity, would lead to cuts in those sectors – turning a bad situation even worse for women, said Curtin.

Women, especially Māori and Pasifika women, are entering the Covid recession in a difficult spot. On average their incomes are lower than men, they have less seniority because of time off caring for kids and they have less retirement savings.

When asked about the government’s programme for women, Genter said it was still a work in progress.

“The government is very aware of the problem and so far the economic response is more shovel-ready programmes and the trade and apprenticeship supports. That’s a really important part of it, especially in the construction trades that are very male dominated,” she said.

According to Genter, there will be a need for more of a “gender lens” as the country responds to the pandemic. A gender lens means looking at issues partly by considering the economic and social opportunities created for women. A number of women’s groups had called on the government to apply a gender lens to the budget, but that request was turned down by Treasury.

However, the minister said that the wage subsidy and income support programmes, which are open to everyone, will help women as well. Both those programmes are running out and will be stopped within weeks. They were also in place during the months where 10,000 women left the workforce.

You actually can’t just pick up a hammer and go to work

Warwick Quinn, the chief executive of the group responsible for construction trades, the Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation, said it won’t be as easy as creating an advertising campaign to get women into the trades.

While the BCITO has spent years looking at bringing more women into the trades and has called for a long-term programme of cultural change to bring in women, it won’t happen overnight.

“The person needs to want to work in the sector. It’s a real career choice. They are signing up for a four-year apprenticeship and that’s a big commitment,” he said, adding that Covid-19 has presented a “golden opportunity to fast-track diversity in the sector”.

It’s a point worth repeating: someone deciding to join the trades today will need training for the next three to four years.

Women make up only 2.5% of the people in trades and apprenticeships. They’ve been kept out largely due to a lack of knowledge about the opportunities, lack of promotion and lack of role models in the industry,  Quinn said. That’s changing, but slowly.

Larger construction firms are far more likely to hire women. Those with over 20 people on staff are three times more likely to bring on female workers. However, construction in New Zealand is an overwhelmingly cottage industry, with over 95% of companies having fewer than 10 workers. Most of 65,000 firms in the industry are made up of a few guys with one or two utes and some tools.

“When you look at changing a culture, we’re not trying to change an oil tanker, we’re trying to change an armada with 65,000 firms headed in different directions,” he said.

“When you talk to the firms, they always think, after they’ve taken a women on, ‘Jeez, why haven’t I done this years ago?’ They are better communicators, they’re softer on the tools, they are better with customers, they have much greater attention to detail. Those things bring great positives, but they don’t realise it until they’ve got a toe in the water,” he added. “This won’t be solved by a short-term advertising campaign.”

So what’s the alternative

A Covid-19 response unit has been set up within the women’s ministry. According to Genter, they’ve been coming up with ideas to tackle the problem of growing women’s unemployment, but she was not ready to share any.

“There are lots of jobs that women would like to do, that need to be done and government has to be there to help people get into those jobs. Over the past decade we’ve underestimated the importance of work in the public sector as well as unpaid work that’s often undertaken by women. Once we start really recognising the social and economic value of that work it makes it easier for us to invest in it,” she said.

She pointed to increased support for sole parents as an example of what that investment could look like. Maybe more money for childcare, but neither of the major parties are talking about any sizeable investment.

Genter also pointed to the Equal Pay Amendment, which became law in July, as a win for women that will help in the post-Covid environment. The law is one of the biggest changes to gender equity in the workplace in decades. The amendment allows female-dominated industries to bargain for higher pay for all its workers in an attempt to make up for historically lower pay rates.

National has promised to work with business to promote more women to senior roles. The main thrust of the party’s economic policy is to grow the size of the economy, which the party says would create jobs for both women and men.

Making sure women don’t suffer disproportionately is good for them and for men, concludes Curtin. “This isn’t a zero sum game. Just because men aren’t worse off, we shouldn’t stop worrying about the women. Fixing this is good for everyone.”



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