Return to the Office in a Post-COVID World: Good for Australian Women?

COVID-19 has changed the lives of working women across Australia with mixed results. In 2021, a series of workplaces are instating ‘return to the office’ policies. We want to examine what this means in particular for Australian women.  

Let’s recap: 2020 undoubtedly was an extraordinarily challenging year for most. Social distancing became the new norm and the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated going into the office was not in the interests of the health of the population with such a highly contagious virus (Have you seen the spread in an office? You have been warned). Most companies followed WHO directives, with some jumping in earlier than official directives to stop the spread and made it mandatory for employees to work from home, unless they were essential workers.

With office spaces off-limits, people had to set up work from home (WFH) capabilities sometimes in crammed shared spaces with their children and partners, but it’s women that we’ve seen far too often assuming the role of primary carer while also continuing to work.

According to the WGEA: ‘Women are likely to increase time spent on caring responsibilities. They comprise the majority of the healthcare workforce, and are more likely to care for sick family members at home and take on education-related responsibilities while children are home from school.’ Several think-tanks and the UN believe we’re heading back to the 1950’s in terms of gender equality and gender roles in the home and in public life. “Everything we worked for, that has taken 25 years, could be lost in a year,” says UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia.

However, a Deloitte survey from June / July 2020 of 2000 people found of people aged 18 to 75, who were WFH, 50 per cent of women found it easier, compared to only 35 per cent of men. WFH arrangements also have a positive impact from an ableism perspective: so many more opportunities have opened up to people with disabilities and chronic health issues. It cuts commuting times and allows for greater levels of flexibility (if you don’t have a suspicious micro manager for a boss!).

Studies have also found that women in a WFH situation are more vulnerable and at a greater risk of domestic violence. According to WHO, “stress, loss of income and isolation has increased domestic violence against women”. As frontline workers attention turned towards caring for people afflicted with COVID-19 there are not enough resources to care for those affected by domestic violence.

“The impacts of COVID-19 on women’s safety are only just beginning to be felt, and will compound the risks women face from abusive partners or family members for months and potentially years after isolation measures are lifted.”

a stark warning from Australian Women Against Violence Alliance and Fair Agenda (AWAVA) supported by YWCA.

AWAVA detail:

Decades of evidence about perpetrator behaviour shows that governments must now plan for:

  • Risk of escalating abuse in the home as isolation measures begin to lift, and some perpetrators using violence in response to the loss of control they have been able to exert in the home during lockdown;
  • Surges in contact with services from victim-survivors who haven’t had the ability to safely reach out for help while they were trapped in constant proximity with their abuser;
  • Escalation of surveillance, harassment and threats by separated abusive partners as they are able to travel to victim-survivors’ residences again;
  • Increased numbers of women requiring crisis accommodation and case management support, as windows of opportunity for them to escape open for the first time in weeks;
  • Increase in the use of violence by perpetrators when their dominance in the household is threatened by job loss or financial insecurity; and
  • Greater barriers to escape for women whose financial security is undermined by job loss or financial insecurity.

We must explore the benefits and negative impacts of WFH in an intersectional context.

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