New Zealand is in a 'shecession' – so where is the much-needed 'she-covery'? | Claire Robinson


Some may have heard the terms “shecession” or “pink recession”; words associated with the worldwide trend for pandemic-related job and income losses to affect women more than men. In New Zealand, we saw it in the June quarter unemployment figures. Ninety percent of the 11,000 New Zealanders who had at lost their jobs due to Covid-19 were women.

These statistics were shocking but perhaps not surprising. New Zealand’s early pandemic response was gendered when it came to which industries were, and weren’t, considered “essential”. In the highest alert levels (3 and 4) work in the personal care industries (hairdressers, manicurists, beauticians, domestic cleaners, personal trainers, gymnasiums) – largely done by women – was not allowed. Business owners and workers in these industries were told they could not offer services which involved face-to-face or sustained close personal contact; the risk of Covid transmission was too great.

Meanwhile, tradies, construction workers, street repairers, telecommunication technicians – a male dominated workforce – were amongst the “essential” workers that were allowed to return to work first under alert level 3. They were advised to keep two metres separation from each other; a distance that, from my unscientific survey around my neighbourhood, was honoured more in the breach than the observance.

That early gendered approach to what was and wasn’t considered essential work was no mere blip. The sad truth is that it has been jobs for the boys, not the girls, that our major political parties have prioritised in their so-called “recovery” packages. Even though the next prime minister of New Zealand will be a woman, women’s work is no more economically prioritised in this country today than back when it wasn’t, in centuries gone by.

“Jobs, jobs, jobs” is the mantra of both major political parties. Not since the 1970s has government-primed job creation been such a hotly contested election issue. After the 1980s and 90s, when successive governments privatised state-owned railways, airways, power generation and telecommunication companies in order to reduce public expenditure and debt, the responsibility for new job creation was effectively passed to the private sector.

Now, however, facing the worst global recession since the great depression of the 1920s, the Labour party is returning to being active in the job creation market by borrowing to invest in large-scale private sector infrastructure projects, and promising to create more than 20,000 jobs on “shovel ready” projects. Labour’s justification: what they are calling an “infrastructure deficit” left by the last government. In the first major party leaders debate this week, Jacinda Ardern also introduced us to the term “double-duty”, referring to her party’s plans to invest in infrastructure, like the new Dunedin hospital, and in free trades training to create jobs for people to build the hospital. Said Ardern: “We get a double whammy of both building a facility and training our young people.”

National, too, has jumped aboard this bandwagon, proposing $31bn investment in transport infrastructure over the next decade and an additional $4.8bn over the next decade in upgrading our schools. The stark reality is, however, that with women representing fewer than 3% of the construction workforce, the overwhelming beneficiaries of jobs on these infrastructure projects will be men.

National leader Judith Collins tours construction work building a new wharf at the Port of Napier.
National leader Judith Collins tours construction work building a new wharf at the Port of Napier. Photograph: Kerry Marshall/Getty Images

At the same time, the pandemic has shone a harsh spotlight on how seriously understaffed our public health, aged care and education sectors are. Despite glaring gaps in these largely female dominated workforces, job creation in these sectors does not seem to be as politically important to the 2020 electoral competition.

In terms of the immediate return on investment there is little difference between investing public money to stimulate job creation in the private or the public sector. Or in sectors that employ more men or employ more women. At the end of the day, more jobs means more people paying tax, stimulating the economy through consumption, and less reliance on the state to balance income inequality through income tax redistribution.

But in terms of GDP (the post-second world war international indicator of national progress) the primary determinant of success – productivity – is grounded in the idea of men creating value through their manual labour. Which makes it understandable, but oh so disappointing, that at a time we want to move out of recession (two quarters of negative GDP growth) the solution defaulted to by our major political parties is to commit our women and daughters to borrowing tens of billions of dollars in order to create jobs they are never going to personally take up.

Where is the much-needed “she-covery” plan to accompany that investment in shovels? Where is the equivalent investment in sectors that allow and support women to participate in the recovery in the same way as men? If our major political parties are unable to answer satisfactorily, women’s employment and financial prospects in New Zealand could be set back by decades.

Claire Robinson is professor of communication design at Massey University.