First published on Women’s Agenda on 5 May 2020
Young women are likely to experience the greatest health and economic impacts from the COVID-19 crisis, writes Sarah Hill, Young Women’s Development Manager at YWCA Australia.
COVID-19 will hit Australia hard, but some groups will be more impacted than others. Young women in particular will be impacted through risks to employment prospects, long-term financial stability and their ongoing health.
Young women are already losing employment at an alarming rate. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics has already showed that jobs for people aged 20 and under decreased by nearly 10% between 14 March and 4 April, compared to 6% for the general population. This is just the first step in long line of economic hardships expected as a result of COVID-19 – the Grattan Institute estimates about 40% of employed teenagers will lose their jobs due to the pandemic.
This stems from the fact that young women are more likely to work in a job that is significantly impacted by COVID-19, in sectors such as the arts, hospitality, retail, childcare or tourism. Women make up over half of the 950,000 casual employees ineligible for income support payments including JobKeeper and young women aged 15-24 are more likely to be contracted on a casual basis compared with workers over the age of 25.
Young women who are near to completing studies and excited to start new careers are at risk of graduating into a recession. The Reserve Bank of Australia says the chances of graduates securing full-time employment has fallen to the lowest level since the 1990s recession.
Being unable to secure paid employment could increase the likelihood of young women taking on more than their fair share of unpaid care work – a key contributor to the gender pay gap. Women already take on 72% of unpaid household labour, a figure that will likely rise during COVID-19.
Heightened caring responsibilities, unemployment and underemployment, combined with reduced superannuation, will create a perfect storm for the gender pay gap to increase beyond its current rate of 15.5%.
On average women already retire with 47% less superannuation than men. Yet the government’s superannuation early release scheme has already seen high withdrawal rates among young women using superannuation funds like Hostplus, for people working in hospitality and retail.
If they have lost their jobs or had their working hours slashed, the choice might be between paying their rent now and planning for retirement later. However, by withdrawing from funds now, young women risk endangering their future financial security by losing the power of compound interest.
As superannuation whiz Christina Hobbs from Verve Super explains , a 20-year-old woman withdrawing $20,000 from superannuation today, could lose $120,000 by the time they retire. A 30-year-old woman could lose $100,000. This is a significant figure and could have serious repercussions for women upon retirement.
In addition to risks to their financial security, there are current health and safety concerns for young women. Despite the media’s focus on the dangers of COVID-19 for elderly people, it is young women in their 20s who are the most at-risk of contracting COVID-19 in Australia. In Queensland, young women aged 20-29 are the most affected cohort with over 100 recorded cases of COVID-19. Similarly in NSW, women in their 20s have been infected with COVID-19 more than any other age or gender group.
Current data doesn’t fully explain why young women have high rates of infection. However, we must consider that young women make up a significant proportion of customer service employees, paid and unpaid caregivers and medical workers, and are thus on the frontline of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic every day.
The pandemic has other impacts on young women’s health and safety. Access to sexual and reproductive health services is currently compromised, particularly for young migrant women, and there will continue to be an exponential rise in gender-based violence cases during and after the crisis. While extra government funding has already been committed to respond to gender-based violence when it occurs, significant investment into primary prevention programs is still needed to shift community attitudes and improve women’s future safety and wellbeing.
Australia needs a gendered crisis analysis and one which applies an intersectional lens to properly understand the impacts of COVID-19 on all women, and to better inform a government response. A long-term response must rethink the value of paid and unpaid work, ensure access to essential services and plan for the long-term economic and social impacts of COVID-19 on Australia’s young people.
Sarah Hill is the Young Women’s Development Manager at YWCA Australia. Sarah has worked in various roles across the youth and women’s sectors for over ten years and has an education background in international relations and business.