Gendered effects of COVID-19: the hidden consequences of operational change


By Fay Calderone 

During COVID-19, women are more likely to be stood down, made redundant or otherwise disadvantaged as compared to men. Why? Firstly, women are overrepresented in industries that have been hit the hardest, including travel and tourism, childcare, beauty and retail. Of the 19 sectors in the economy, there were more job losses for women than men in 14 of these sectors. Secondly, women are more likely to be part-time and casual workers. Casuals were some of the first to go when the virus hit and recent temporary changes to Modern Awards mean that part-time hours can be reduced.

While large scale operational changes may be necessary for many businesses to survive this period, it may not always be just the luck of the draw that more women are being let go than men.

Long-term effects for women

To enact a lawful stand down, employers must satisfy the onerous requirements of section 524 of the Fair Work Act including that there must be a stoppage of work and not simply a downturn. For redundancy, employers must consult with employees, consider chances for redeployment and ensure that the role need not be completed by anyone. If all obligations are met, it is not unlawful per se to stand down or make redundant more women than men.

However, employers should be mindful of the effect on diversity and inclusion. The dismissal of female employees does not occur in a social vacuum. What might otherwise appear to be operational decisions have real and long-term impacts on female participation in the workforce.

The Financy Women’s Index, an economic measure of the financial status of Australian women as compared to men, rose by only 0.3% in the March 2020 quarter, the weakest start to a year since March 2015. In addition, full-time female employment grew by only 0.1%, compared to 0.9% growth in male full-time employment. The result is an exacerbation in gender pay and superannuation gaps, not to mention the damaging impact on female career progression.

Organisations that fail to consider the social position of women when making operational changes inadvertently support these entrenched disadvantages. Even without a discriminatory intent, letting many women go undermines gender diversity. Studies show that this is simply bad business: employers can expect increased organisational performance, a better reputation and an enhanced ability to attract and retain employees when they have a strong female workforce.

Discrimination claims

During COVID-19, women may also be subject to discriminatory behaviour as they are more likely than men to take leave or request reduced hours to care for children at short notice, or to provide eldercare to ageing family members that are particularly vulnerable to the virus. If women who exercise these workplace rights are being stood down or made redundant at a more accelerated rate than their male counterparts who do not have carer responsibilities, there may be a claim for adverse action as a result of a protected attribute. The Equal Opportunities Commission reports that thousands of women per year are forced out of jobs due to carer responsibilities and we may see this spike during this time.

Equity on the way to equality

Gender equity refers to fairness of treatment for men and women, according to their respective needs. This may be treatment that is different, but is equivalent in terms of opportunity. Whilst not contending that men should be considered for stand down or redundancy before women, employers are urged to consider whether seemingly objective grounds for dismissal truly have that effect in practice.

Take the example of partnership, executive roles and corporate boards, where women have historically been underrepresented. Many organisations have made considerable gains in terms of gender equality targets and to stall women’s careers now would not only undermine this but further entrench disadvantage. Organisations should consider this when managing resources and make proactive attempts to address gender biases and improve economic outcomes for all.

What can employers do?

Creating an inclusive workplace that achieves optimal productivity, innovation and performance requires leaders to set the tone. Employers should consider the long-term negative effects of removing women from the workforce, and consider principles of equity in all decisions.

Employers can make a start on this by:

  • ensuring stand downs and redundancies are lawful and genuine and not related to a protected attribute either directly or indirectly;
  • giving particular consideration to how women can be redeployed, perform suitable alternative duties or be given a greater span of hours within which to work; and
  • not relying on JobKeeper as the only solution - although financially helpful, women will still suffer the consequences in terms of career progression if they are not meaningfully employed during this time and their workplaces, and indeed the economy, doesn’t “snap back” during this time.

Throughout COVID-19, women should be given every chance to participate meaningfully in the workforce. Employers and leaders making decisions today must be mindful of the hidden or unintended effects of their decisions on the inclusive workplaces we need to reap the benefits from tomorrow.


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