HILDA data show women’s job prospects improving relative to men’s, and the COVID changes might have helped

<a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shutterstock;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shutterstock</a>

The latest HILDA survey shows Australia’s gender gap in employment continuing to close, with progress beginning on the earnings gap.

Remarkably, the progress has continued notwithstanding the disruptions caused by COVID; there are indications they may even have helped.

Funded by the Australian government and managed by the Melbourne Institute, the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey is one of Australia’s most valuable social research tools.

HILDA examined the lives of 14,000 Australians in 2001 and has kept coming back each year to discover what has changed. By surveying their children as well, and in future surveying their grandchildren, it is building up a long-term picture of how the lives of Australians are changing.

Employment lifting

The full span of the surveys through to the results for 2021 released this morning shows shows the proportion of women aged 18 to 64 in paid employment climbed from 64.3% in 2001 to 74.1% in 2019 before dipping during COVID and then bouncing back.

Separate labour force figures collected by the Bureau of Statistics suggest it might be as high as 76% by now, indicating that COVID may have merely dented rather than turned back progress.

For men of that age, the proportion in paid employment has changed little during those two decades, fluctuating between 80% and 84%, allowing the gap in employment between men and women to narrow eight percentage points.

Older women aged 65 to 69 are also much more likely to be employed. Most of the gain has taken place since 2009 when one in ten women of that age were in paid employment, a figure that has since climbed to one in four, not too far off the one in three men of that age employed.

Read more: Older women are doing remarkable things – it's time for putdowns to end

Much of the increase would be due to the phased increase in the female pension age between 1995 and 2004 and the further increase in both the male and female pension age between 2017 and 2023. Broader social and economic changes such as the increase in two-earner couples will have also played a role.

While men remain well ahead in full-time employment, that gap is narrowing too. The proportion of women aged 18 to 64 employed full-time has climbed from around 35% to around 40% while the proportion for men has stayed close to 70%.

Previous HILDA reports have shown the arrival of children remains an important driver of divergence in the labour market experiences of men and women.

The arrival of a couple’s first child sees hours of paid work of the mother plummet and in many cases not recover for more than a decade. It has almost no effect on the paid working time of fathers.

Time spent on housework and child care, by contrast, rises dramatically for mothers and actually falls slightly for fathers.

If the gender gap in employment is to be eliminated, it is clear couples with children will need to share the load more equally.

Wages lifting

Male and female earnings have been converging slower than male and female employment, but the pace has picked up.

In 2001, women employed full-time earned on average 79% of what men earned. As recently as 2016, they still earned only 78% of what men earned.

But, since then, their earnings relative to male earnings have shot up, hitting 86% in 2021.

The gap in earnings of all employees – full-time and part-time – is greater because women are more likely to be employed part-time, but growth in the number of women employed full-time means this gap is closing faster. Average female earnings have climbed from 66% of male earnings in 2001 to 75% in 2021.

How COVID might have helped

While the pandemic seemed to hurt women’s employment prospects more than men’s, longer term it seems to be improving the relative position of women.

HILDA shows the proportion of employees working from home in 2020 and 2021 has increased substantially.

The proportion working any hours at home climbed from 25.1% in 2019 to 37.3% in 2021. The proportion working only at home climbed from 3.5% to 17.7%.

There has also been a sizeable rise in the proportion of employees reporting an entitlement to work from home, from 35% in 2019 to 45%.

While the increases were greatest in the regions that experienced extensive lockdowns – Victoria, NSW and the ACT – working from home increased in almost all parts of Australia.

Read more: HILDA finds working from home boosts women's job satisfaction more than men's, and that has a downside

HILDA shows women have been more likely to work from home than men since COVID, even after accounting for differences in the occupations and industries in which they work.

This is probably because of an increase in the number and types of jobs that can be worked at home by mothers with caring responsibilities.

But this latest 2021 HILDA survey also reveals another gender gap in the labour market: women are more likely to work while unwell, including working at the workplace while unwell.

There are health risks from working from home while unwell and also career risks from working at home. Being physically present in the workplace is likely to assist with career advancement.

“Out of sight” can mean “out of mind” when it comes to promotions.

Some small steps on sharing the caring

Also providing a glimmer of hope for closing the gender gaps in the labour market is that, among parents with children, we’ve seen an increase in the time men have been spending on household chores and looking after the children.

The improvement accelerated slightly in 2020 and 2021, via both an increase in the hours worked on domestic chores by men and a slight decrease for women.

But there is a long way to go. In 2021, mothers of dependent children were still spending 75% more time on unpaid housework and child care than their male partners.

The mothers spent 53 hours per week. Their male partners spent 30 hours.

Read more: HILDA survey at a glance: 7 charts reveal we're smoking less, taking more drugs and still binge drinking

Roger Wilkins receives funding from the Australian Research Council.