Originally published in Crikey on November 25, 2021

The great resignation is apparently upon us — workers are walking away from bad jobs. But in Australia, the exodus of women from the workforce says more about structural barriers than worker empowerment.

Have you heard? The so-called great resignation is afoot. A world where an empowered workforce say “no” to bad bosses and a life dictated by work. In the US, increased job departures have been coined a “revolution in workers’ expectations”.

Australian workers were squeezed for an average 6.1 hours unpaid overtime per week in 2021 – a substantial increase on 2020.  If only expectations matched reality.

In Australia, employers crow about shortages in low-paid, “churn and burn” jobs of which they refuse to improve the quality. Meanwhile, 700,000 people are unemployed, and 1.3 million are in jobs, but need more work. Around 1 million more aren’t looking for work, but want to work and are available. The ABS calls them “marginally attached” and “discouraged” workers.

Women know a thing or two about being discouraged. Far from quitting as an act of righteous agency, they’ve lost their jobs during lockdowns against their will. It’s material. Less “life’s too short to work 24/7”. More “my kids need care immediately”.

The explosion in caring demands associated with lockdowns fell disproportionately to women – as in 2020, when women’s average hours caring for children and performing household tasks rose faster than for men, reaching 5.1 hours per day (versus 3.1 for men).

In February 2021, 175,000 women didn’t look for work even though they were available and ready to start within four weeks because they had pressing caring responsibilities.

Even if women loaded with caring demands wanted to retain their jobs, the odds were stacked against them. They hold the majority of low-hours insecure jobs without protections against sacking. When bosses want to shed jobs to save bottom lines, women cop it worst.

68% of all jobs lost between May and October were held by women (205,000 jobs). Women’s participation in the job market fell 1.7 percentage points. Nearly all (90%) of women’s jobs lost were part-time.

Little acknowledged, the latest job vacancies data mirror women’s exodus from paid work. In August, vacancies were highest in healthcare, administration and retail. These are all industries employing 50% or more women. All are in the bottom-half of industries by average weekly earnings.

The question is, as wallets open, beers flow and economic activity resumes, what’s bringing women back to work? A couple shifts at minimum wage, and higher COVID-19 contagion risks to boot. All to pay for one day of high-cost childcare? Hardly appealing.

An empowered workforce can walk away from bad jobs. But structural barriers stop women from participating in the first place.

High-cost childcare is a clear barrier for women workers. Before the pandemic, over half of non-employed women with young children said high-cost childcare was the biggest influence on their decision not to work.

Australia’s outdated paid parental scheme bakes “primary” and “secondary” carers into family structures – reinforcing the exodus of women from work, and blocking the equal participation of fathers in raising their children.

The so-called great resignation is gendered. But women shouldn’t have to resign themselves to the revolving door of crap jobs and important caring responsibilities.

We’ve come a long way since the 1950s when conservative norms dictated women’s labour should be unpaid and confined to the home. Women have better access to the world of paid work now. But their relegation to insecure, low-paid, and junior roles shows we have much further to go.

And it’s government policies that holds us back.

Australian women need genuine measures to support them in all aspects of their lives; from free early childhood care and education, better work-family balance policies, pay equity, and more opportunities for decent jobs.

Only then, can women imagine a world where they are empowered through work.

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