How COVID-19 Has Impacted Women’s Employment and Education – Unpacking Student Sentiment in 2020

Claudia Reiners
May 31, 2021

How COVID-19 Has Impacted Women’s Employment and Education – Unpacking Student Sentiment in 2020

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The COVID-19 pandemic reached every corner of the globe, touching the lives of billions in a way never seen before. While all have felt the impact, women have been disproportionately affected by the ensuing economic avalanche. These economic effects can be captured in one phrase: the pink recession.

The pink recession has delivered widespread financial insecurity and job instability, fuelling unpredictable enrolment behaviours amongst women.

This article uses both our owned data and other credible sources to unpack:

  • Why women experienced severe job losses and how it impacted their dependency on government-funded courses in 2020.
  • What role increased household and care responsibilities played in decreasing women’s urgency to study.
  • Why women expressed overall lower motivation to commence study than men.

How COVID-19 triggered a pink recession

Women have been massively impacted by the pandemic. This has sparked a so-called pink recession, characterised by several socio-economic inconsistencies and inequalities.

1. Mass job losses.

Around 55% of the 600,000 jobs lost in April of 2020 were held by women. This equates to almost 8% of Australian women losing their jobs, compared to 4% of men. Women’s working hours also dropped by 12%, whilst men’s dropped to 7%. 

This disparity is partly because more women work in the retail, hospitality, education and tourism sectors – industries severely affected by government lockdowns. More women also hold casual employment than men (often due to greater responsibilities at home), making them more vulnerable to lay-offs during crises.

2. Increased household and care responsibilities.

Even prior to the pandemic, women spent a greater amount of time on household responsibilities, domestic duties, and caring. 

This discrepancy only worsened during the pandemic. The rise of remote learning and the scarcity of childcare services forced women to dedicate greater time and energy to their children and household. During the pandemic, 80% of women reported that they did most of the unpaid domestic work, compared to 39% of men. 

There were 400,000 fewer women in the labour force – defined as those working or actively looking for work – in May of 2020 compared to February. This reveals that many women are not even in the position to look for work due to their household duties.

3. Less government support for women-dominated industries.

The Federal Government’s recovery package allocated $27 billion towards male-dominated sectors like construction and energy – this amount surpassing all other sectors combined. In contrast, only $240 million were allocated to increasing women’s workforce participation. 

Interestingly, for every million spent on education, 10.6 jobs are created for women. In comparison, for every million spent on construction only 0.2 jobs are created for women.

The pink recession has amplified existing labour market disadvantages, with women facing mass job losses, increased household responsibilities, and a lack of government funding. As a result, women will continue to experience reduced educational and work opportunities.

Women’s attitudes to study during and beyond COVID-19

With this information, women were expected to exhibit lower positivity and enthusiasm towards commencing study.

The data collected in real time from our Student Sentiment Index allowed us to validate this hypothesis. By measuring the degree of optimism – or lack thereof – prospective female students exhibit towards commencing study, we were able to critically examine how the global pandemic disproportionately impacted women in 2020.

We uncovered that women:

  • Exhibited higher sensitivity towards government funding initiatives than men.
  • Expressed decreased urgency to commence study.
  • Held lower motivation to pursue tertiary education.

Women were overall more sensitive to funding than men

SSI article 1 funding V2

In 2020, the Sensitivity to Funding Index discovered that women were more likely to depend on financial aid to pursue tertiary education (figure 1).

This Index measures the dependency of prospective students on government funding and/or other arrangements – with a higher sensitivity indicating an individual is less likely to pursue study if they are not financially supported. These individuals are therefore more likely to miss out on the socio-economic benefits of achieving higher qualifications, while their peers advance up the ladder.

In 2020, we witnessed discrepancies when comparing different demographics’ sensitivity to funding. This revealed that women were consistently 5% more sensitive than men to the availability (or lack) of funding when considering educational opportunities. 

With the ongoing impacts of the pink recession, many women were unable to afford to study without funding support, which in turn heightened funding sensitivity. In fact, women accounted for 75% of the overall student decline in higher education in 2020. 

The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that government funding overwhelmingly supports male-dominated industries. For example, the Federal Government’s “High Priority” occupations, as defined in the National Skills Shortage List, are primarily within the male-dominated industries of trades, technology and engineering. 

The Grattan Institute surmises that “funding is a contentious issue for prospective female students… (with) the difficulties around gender bias, the gender pay gap and female representation in the workforce throughout childbearing years” further compounding the issue.

Women displayed a lower sense of urgency to commence study

Throughout 2020, we witnessed women express a lower urgency to commence study, with the Student Urgency Index confirming these findings.

SSI article 1 urgency V2

The Urgency Index discovered that women were less likely to commence study within the next 12 to 24 months (figure 2). This sense of urgency could be influenced by a number of factors, including:

  • Personal circumstances, such as domestic or care responsibilities
  • Availability of government funding schemes
  • Broader socio-economic context

Women’s enrolment in tertiary education dropped by 7% compared to 2% for men from May 2019 to May 2020. Pre-COVID-19, more women actually enrolled in higher education than men, with 60% of new enrolments in 2019 being female. Post-COVID-19 flipped this trend – enrolments for Australian men growing by 35,000

This lack of urgency can be partly attributed to increased caring responsibilities. Women bear a disproportionate load when it comes to caring for children, elderly parents, or other loved ones. The demand for women to perform these duties has only worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, squashing the urgency many women previously had towards their studies.

This lack of urgency is projected to stay long-term. Experts warn that delaying or stopping study for an extended period of time can hurt women’s future work opportunities and earnings, leaving them underqualified.

Women expressed lower motivation to study than men – a direct result of lower urgency to study and higher sensitivity to funding

SSI article 1 motivation V2

Following a similar trend to the Urgency Index, women also displayed lower motivation to study than men – a finding validated by the Motivation Index (figure 3). Experts warn increased financial stress and job insecurity are to blame, causing women to shelve away their study ambitions. 

In 2020, there were 86,000 fewer women in higher education compared to 2019. The number of men in higher education only dropped by 21,200. This represents the largest decrease in female participation since ABS records began in 2004.

The decline in female participation was particularly pronounced among women over 25, with the figure being almost 60,000. Interestingly, 26,000 more men over the age of 25 enrolled in studies during this time. 

These stark figures indicate that tens of thousands of women have been forced to waylay their study plans due to:

  • Reprioritisation of domestic duties
  • Financial instability – fuelling uncertainty and demotivating women from pursuing further studies
  • Insufficient government funding for women-dominated industries, making it harder for them to justify spending money on their own education.

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified many existing inequalities between men and women in education and employment.

Despite our strong economic recovery, there will be long-term repercussions for women. Women will continue to demonstrate greater sensitivity to education funding, lower urgency and lower motivation to study. This decreased interest in education will pose significant risks for unemployed or underemployed women trying to re-enter the workforce post-COVID-19.

This article is the latest addition to our 2020 Student Sentiment Index series. To keep up to date with the latest insights, subscribe to our newsletter.

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Claudia Reiners
Head of Strategy
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