Gendering the Pandemic: COVID-19 and New Zealand Women’s Labour Market Outcomes

Dr Stephen Blumenfeld, Director of CLEW looks at the gender differences in the labour market that have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic.The COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on both women's and men's employment across the globe. Yet, there is growing evidence that, in most parts of the world, women have borne the brunt of the negative labour market impacts of the global pandemic and the ways in which policymakers have responded to the dual health and economic crises it has generated. Moreover, in spite of this country’s successes in the fight against COVID-19 in the first 18 months since the first case was known to have reached its shores, New Zealand is proving to be no exception to this global reality.

Data from Statistics New Zealand’s quarterly Household Labour Force Survey suggest that, across the labour market, both men and women registered employment gains under COVID-19, with male employment increasing by 17,500 or 1.2 percent and female employment increasing by 2,300 or 0.2 percent between 31 March 2020 and 31 March 2021. Despite this, women's employment numbers failed to keep pace with the 0.7 percent overall increase in employment over that period. The share of the total labour force comprised of women fell by more than 1 percent, while male employment as a share of the total labour force stood at 51 percent at the end of that period, a similar level to that at the beginning. Further to this, whereas total employment grew by close to 20,000 in the 12 months to the end of March this year, males accounted for nearly 90 percent of that growth.

There is also considerable variation across industries. In health care and social services, where women outnumber men more than 4-to-1 and one of the few areas of the labour market not affected by a complete or partial cessation of work during last year's lockdown, men's employment increased during that period by 4,700 or 9.3 percent, while women added 3,700 or 2 percent to the labour force. In manufacturing, where males outnumber females more than 2-to-1, around 1,800 more women were employed in March 2021 than was the case a year earlier, an increase of 1.6 percent, while men's employment increased by only 200 or 0.1 percent. On the other hand, in transportation, postal and warehousing, female employment dropped by 2,500 or 7.2 percent, whereas male employment increased by around 300 or 0.3 percent in the 12 months to March 2021.

Notwithstanding those differences at the industry level, analysis of Quarterly Employment Survey data from the March quarter of both 2020 and 2021 show that the correlation between the female share of jobs filled and the change in both the number and percentage of jobs filled in the twelve months from the start of the country's first COVID lockdown is quite small, 0.09 and 0.06, respectively. Similarly, female-dominated industries – those in which at least 60 percent of jobs are filled by women – are no more likely to have experienced a decline in jobs than male-dominated industries over that period.

This might be taken to suggest, contrary to what has been reported in other countries, that New Zealand women did not take on most of the burden of the labour market impacts of COVID-19. However, data on aggregate employment and jobs filled, don't present the full picture of labour market activity. That is, an individual is considered ‘employed’ and a job is considered ‘filled’, irrespective of the number of hours the worker is employed in their job in any week.

To that end, relative to the change in the total labour force, full-time employment declined by 0.9 percent, while the relative share of the total labour force in part-time employment increased by 1.0 percent in the four quarters ending 31 March of this year. In that same time, though, the part of the labour force comprised of women shrunk by just over 1.0 percent, with both full- and part-time employment falling by around that amount. Nonetheless, for men, an 0.8 percent drop in the share of the total number of workers in the labour force in full-time employment was more than offset by a 6.1 percent jump in part-time employment relative to the total labour force in the referent period.

The distinctions between men's and women's experiences in the labour market under COVID-19 restrictions are drawn more into focus once changes to the characteristics of New Zealander's employment relationships are considered. For one, women were nearly ten times more likely during the first year of the pandemic to have transitioned from standard employment to nonstandard or precarious work than were men. They comprised 90 percent of the drop in permanent employment and 82 percent of the increase in temporary agency employment over that period. These gender differences are most stark with respect to seasonal employment, in which the number of men fell from 13,700 to 11,200 or 18.2 percent and the number of women climbed from 10,500 to 11,500 or 3.3 percent over that period. This has undoubtedly been influenced by COVID travel restrictions limiting the availability of work visa holders who would otherwise occupy many jobs of this nature in female-dominated areas such as hospitality and horticulture.

Younger workers also experienced a disproportionate share of job losses under the COVID restrictions first imposed in March of 2020, with unemployment for those age 15 to 24 years rising from 47,300 to 51,400 in the first 12 months of the health crisis. Women between the ages of 15 and 24 years, nevertheless, carried the lion's share of that load as well. Noteworthy here is that, in addition to being concentrated in jobs most impacted by the pandemic, such as the female-dominated hospitality and retail sectors, youth unemployment was relatively high even before COVID-19. Yet, overall employment for workers between the ages of 15 and 24 fell a further 3.8 percent following the onset of the crisis, from 371,600 in the first quarter of 2020 to 357,300 a year later. Again, young women took a harder hit than did males aged 15 to 24, with the latter experiencing a 3 percent drop in employment in the year to 31 March 2021, compared to 4.8 percent for women in that age bracket.

The data also manifest differences between men and women across ethnicities. Employment among men identifying as Pakeha/European relative to the total labour force increased by around 5,700 employees or 0.6 percent between the first quarter of 2020 and that of 2021, with Māori males adding an additional 4,600 to the labour force in the 12 months to 31 March, an increase of 2.4 percent. Nonetheless, while 3,000 or 1.2 percent more Pakeha/European women joined the labour force, albeit around half the number of Pakeha/European males, 0.5 percent fewer Māori wahine comprised the labour force at the end of March 2021 than was the case a year prior.

Also witnessing a decline over those 12 months were both male and female Pacific Peoples, with employment of the former falling by 1,300 or 1.5 percent and that of the latter by 1,000 or 1.3 percent. Pacifica are the only ethnicity where men appear to have fared worse than women in this regard. People who identify as Asian fared best among both genders, with Asian males adding 12,800 and Asian females 4,900 employees in the year to 31 March 2021, increases of 5.5 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively.

An ethnicity breakdown of the data on official unemployment, encompassing those who are jobless, actively seeking work and available to take a job, likewise underscores the differential impact of COVID-19 and the government's response on female labour force participation. An additional 18,400 individuals, nearly 7 in 10 of whom identify as Pakeha/European, were added to the unemployment rolls in the 12 months to 31 March 2021. Pakeha/European men's official unemployment, for instance, increased by just under 17 percent, while Pakeha/European women's unemployment grew by more than 23 percent in the year following discovery of New Zealand's first case of COVID-19.

Māori, Pacific and Asian men, on the other hand, experienced a far higher increase in official unemployment than did women in each of those ethnic groups. Important to consider in this regard, though, is that many workers – especially those in precarious employment arrangements, which include a disproportionate share of ethnic minority women – are excluded from the official unemployment register. Additionally, among peoples of Middle Eastern, Latin American and African ethnicity, who account for just 1.4 percent of the total labour force, women were around 25 percent more likely to add to the ranks of the unemployed during the first year of the crisis than were men.

Figure 1

Finally, as shown in the figure above, the female labour force underutilisation rate, the share of the total potential labour force either unemployed or underemployed, increased by 19 percent in the year to 31 March 2021, compared to 16.5 percent for males. This difference was driven primarily by the gender differential in available potential job seekers, a number which includes ‘discouraged’ prospective workers. In that regard, the number of women who were not actively seeking work but were available for and desired work increased by 9,300 or over 23 percent, while the number of male available potential job seekers increased by 3,700 or 11 percent between the first quarter of 2020 and that of 2021. More telling, perhaps, are the gaps between men's and women's underemployment and, in turn, underutilisation, both of which grew significantly in the first year of the country's COVID-19 restrictions.