Men are from Masks, Women are from Kleenex: The economic impact of COVID 19 on Australian men and women

Edward Meehan


March 31st, 2021

What lessons can governments learn from COVID 19 to guide future responses to recession? Join Edward Meehan as he unpacks what the economic impacts of the last year’s events can tell us about the role of gender in the Australian economy.

COVID 19 has felt long, gruelling and at times all consuming. But while its effects have been universally felt, they have not always been felt in equal measures. Longstanding features of the economy as well as of traditional government responses to recession have coalesced to result in a female workforce which was hit harder by, and is recovering slower from, the impact of COVID 19. Indeed, a recent report by independent think tank the Grattan Institute noted that at the height of the pandemic in April, 8% of women lost their jobs compared with only 4% of men [1]. It is a stark contrast and behind these numbers are lessons to be learned about how our economy operates and how it could change for the better.

Drivers of Impact

Major drivers of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women are the  differing industries that men and women work in as well as the increased share of household and child rearing duties that women in Australia tend to assume. Findings from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2018 Labour Force Quarterly Survey identify the construction industry as the most male-dominated workforce, with only 12% of its jobs being held by women [2]. It was also among the industries least beset by lockdown restrictions: construction was classified as essential labour even during Melbourne’s famously strict stage 4 lockdowns last August[3]. Conversely, industries such as retail and food services, where women take up 55% of jobs, were effectively shuttered for much of 2020. Another compounding factor is that women were more likely to occupy casual positions at the outset of the pandemic: those who had been in these positions for less than 12 months were not entitled to access to the JobKeeper scheme [4].

Another contributing factor to the economic hit to women was the spike in domestic responsibilities brought on by lockdowns. The closure of many childcare facilities and schools meant that parents had to spend more time supervising their children. However, research by the Grattan Institute found that on average, mothers took on one hour more per day than men of these additional household duties [5]. In many cases, the juggling act between domestic labour and employment became too difficult to manage, resulting in women reducing their working hours. Generally speaking, less men faced this trade-off which further contributed to the disproportionate economic impact between genders.   

Why previous solutions might not work and what new solutions may be available

Thankfully, the worst of COVID appears to be over, but its gendered economic impact may need targeted action to resolve.

Typical responses to recessions, though not on their face discriminatory, may fail to deliver equally for men and women if they do not take into account the role of gender in the economy.

Investments in infrastructure and the construction industry have been the backbone of western stimulus packages for decades, from the US’ investment in Hoover Dam during the Great Depression to the Rudd Government’s ‘School Halls’ plan [6]. However, while such approaches have certainly had success, they do little to directly improve the economic standing of Australian women, who make up only 12% of construction industry employees [7].

Furthermore, other expansionary government policy measures such as income and investment tax breaks run into the issue of the gender wage gap. As Australian women earn less income, the absolute (although not proportional) amount of tax breaks due to them is less than that for Australian men [8].

For this reason, the Grattan Institute recommends that an increased proportion of recovery investment be directed to female-dominated industries, social services, and childcare to benefit women [9].

Perhaps more substantially, the report also advocated for a fundamental shift in the approach of governments to recessions. Such an approach would add to the typical playbook of expansionary budgetary and monetary policy a proactive equity mindset. This would involve analysis of the effects of decisions on men and women from the outset [10]. Such an approach could hopefully avoid a scenario where good faith efforts at economic recovery risk unintentionally leaving women behind.

It is cliche at this stage to note that the COVID 19 pandemic has been a once in a lifetime event. However, while its particular circumstances may be temporary, it has highlighted economic challenges faced by Australian women which are likely to persist for some time. Lessons from this unique situation may be able to guide how we respond to future recessions to achieve a more equitable recovery for men and women alike.


[1] Wood, D., Griffiths, K., and Crowley, T. (2021). Women’s work: The impact of the COVID crisis on Australian women. Grattan Institute

[2] 2021. Gender segregation in Australia’s workforce | WGEA. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2021].

[3] 2021. Builders baffled by decision to halt regional construction in Victorian lockdown. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2021].

[4] Wood, D., Griffiths, K., and Crowley, T. (2021). Women’s work: The impact of the COVID crisis on Australian women. Grattan Institute

[5] Ibid.

[6] Gibson, J., Peatling, S. and West, A., 2009. Bookworms and builders the winners as schools get cash. [online] The Sydney Morning Herald. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2021].

[7] 2021. Gender segregation in Australia’s workforce | WGEA. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2021].

[8] Wood, D., Griffiths, K., and Crowley, T. (2021). Women’s work: The impact of the COVID crisis on Australian women. Grattan Institute

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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