A Stimulus Backlash Delivers a Global Warning: Value Female Workers

SYDNEY, Australia — Shelley Duggan became an essential worker when Australia declared that her job at a suburban child care center must be preserved so that doctors and nurses would have a place to send their children during the coronavirus outbreak.

Australia even made child care free, subsidizing wages and leading Ms. Duggan to believe that the country was finally learning to respect her work in a multibillion-dollar industry that is overwhelmingly female.

Now, though, that faith is shattered. With the country striding back toward normalcy, the first industry that the government is cutting from the subsidy program is Ms. Duggan’s. And just as free child care is ending, extra stimulus will be pumped into the construction industry — a contrast that many say reflects old sexist biases.

“They’ve thrown us under the bus,” said Ms. Duggan, 41, a mother of three with degrees in education and psychology. “I’ve been working through the whole thing while trying to home-school my children as well. It just goes to show that they are not valuing what we do.”

As countries relax coronavirus lockdowns and redouble efforts to bring their economies back to life, Australia’s throwback approach to stimulus spending has prompted a furious outcry. The message for nations a step behind Australia on the path to reopening comes from many sectors of society: This is not the 1930s or 1950s; economic priorities must match the times and account for women’s essential roles and sacrifices.

“One thing the Covid crisis has shown us is how important women’s work really is,” said Rae Cooper, a professor of gender, work and employment relations at the University of Sydney Business School. “They’ve kept us alive and kept our society running. Policy needs to catch up with what women are doing.”

The pandemic has placed a disproportionate burden on women. They have put themselves on the contagion’s front lines, in health care, in caring for older adults and in education, outnumbering men at almost every turn. Their unpaid work managing families has expanded. And studies show that they are suffering higher unemployment because they are overrepresented in retail, restaurants and other service industries crippled by lockdowns.

The trend lines are global. The coronavirus has weakened the already precarious position of women in the economies of countries such as India and Japan, and threatens to reverse their economic gains in many places, including the United States and Europe.

But Australia is an especially revealing example because its early approach to the pandemic set up what could have been a transformational moment.

Most Australians had to blink twice when their conservative prime minister, Scott Morrison, moved to protect the early childhood education sector in April. The cost of care for children under 5 had been surging for years without much interest from Parliament, and Mr. Morrison has often been criticized for his macho “rugby bloke” manner. He was scorned last year after saying that women should rise at work only if their gains didn’t come at the expense of men.

And yet, as he turned to scientists for the country’s public health response to the virus, Mr. Morrison — the father of two school-age daughters — yielded to crisis logic for an industry in which 91 percent of the workers are women. As parents pulled their children out of child care centers, the government agreed to cover half of the fees, included child care in its national wage subsidy program and declared care would be free for all.

The decision meant that many doctors, nurses and other essential workers could put in extra hours. Working parents nationwide, including Fernanda Fain-Binda, 37, a freelance writer in Melbourne, let out sighs of relief.

“When the child care fees became free, it was this incredible weight off our mind,” said Ms. Fain-Binda, who has a 5-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. “The moment the lockdown started, we actually increased my son’s days because we knew we needed that.”

The government did not exactly make it easy for the industry. In most cases, federal assistance failed to match pre-pandemic revenue. Many workers had their hours cut. Ms. Duggan, who works in a suburb of Melbourne, said she took a pay cut even with the government support, leaving her with a wary appreciation for Mr. Morrison’s assistance.

“It was a backhanded compliment,” she said. “‘We really need you, and the economy needs you, but we don’t want to pay you, because we don’t think you’re that important.’”

Eventually, the soft whisper of disrespect started to sound like a shout. One after another, federal and state officials crowed about plans to prioritize infrastructure projects and bolster manufacturing and construction — industries that are 70 percent to 95 percent male.

On June 4, Mr. Morrison announced a plan to support builders with 688 million Australian dollars, about $475 million, in grants for the construction or renovation of homes.

Four days later, his government announced the end of free child care and subsidies for early-childhood educators, despite promises that the program would last until September.

Asked how she felt about the pairing, Dana Lightbody, 42, a single mother of 3-year-old twins in Sydney, offered a common response: “Aw mate, it’s anger, seething anger.”

The conference and training company she co-owns has lost most of its business. In the past few weeks, she said she had sold a garage’s worth of old baby accessories to make ends meet. In July, she will again confront child care charges of more than $200 a day for her toddlers.

Professor Cooper, the gender and employment specialist, said that many Australians are outraged by the government’s approach. “It’s absolutely valuing men’s work over women’s work,” she said. “It is so obvious and so clear to the public that it’s really quite shocking.”

Mr. Morrison, for his part, seemed surprised by the indignation. “When we put the new arrangements for child care in place during the worst parts of this crisis, we were very clear that it would not be a permanent arrangement,” he said in Parliament on Wednesday. He noted that the usual subsidies, on a sliding scale for income, would soon return.

  • Updated June 12, 2020

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But critics say that the prime minister is missing the point. The Australia Institute, an independent think tank, recently found that stimulus spending on construction would create fewer jobs for both men and women than spending a similar amount on health, education and tourism or entertainment, which are expected to be future growth areas for economies worldwide.

The focus on hard-hat workers also ignores the fact that 55 percent of the newly unemployed in Australia are women — and that in survey after survey, women report that high-quality, affordable child care is one of the most important factors shaping their careers.

For years, Australians have envied Scandinavian countries of similar wealth that offer free universal care from as early as eight months of age — and for a brief moment, they had it.

“We saw for a couple of months that it’s possible to think more broadly than we have in the past and possibly change the gender dynamics,” Professor Cooper said. “And now it’s gone. It’s a real slap in the face to be removing stimulus in female-dominated areas at precisely the moment when women are dealing with an additional burden.”

Ms. Duggan said that even now, after Australia has mostly stamped out the coronavirus, the public health crisis and economic struggles for women have lingered. At her child care center, roughly a quarter of the work force was stuck at home this week waiting for results from Covid-19 tests for themselves or for their children, she noted. Many have already used their sick leave to get through April and May.

“We’re told we’re essential because people need to go to work and keep the economy running,” she said. “But once the economy starts running again, then we go back to being unimportant.”

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