Discrimination against women in the workplace spikes during coronavirus pandemic

Bethany Hender, head of the Canberra Women's Legal Centre's employment and discrimination practice, said there had been a 60 per cent increase in demand for her services during the pandemic. Picture: Jamila Toderas
Bethany Hender, head of the Canberra Women's Legal Centre's employment and discrimination practice, said there had been a 60 per cent increase in demand for her services during the pandemic. Picture: Jamila Toderas

Anna* was five weeks pregnant when the coronavirus pandemic ratcheted up in Australia earlier this year.

Advised by her doctor to take extra precautions, she got a medical certificate recommending her employer allow her to work from home.

"At that stage because it was so early, [the pregnancy] was a very private matter. I was put under a huge amount of pressure to disclose why I had produced the certificate," Anna said.

Julia* asked her boss for unpaid leave to look after her three children when Canberra's schools shut down. Her son has special needs and her daughter is immune compromised.

Weeks after she returned to work, she asked for unpaid leave over the school holidays to care for her children again. She was denied.

"From my perspective I was being punished because I was off during COVID-19," Julia said.

According to the Canberra Women's Legal Centre, these are not isolated cases.

Head of the centre's employment and discrimination practice Bethany Hender said there had been a 60 per cent increase in demand for her services during the pandemic.

The centre is now expanding its employment practice team to keep up with all the inquiries.

"We're being inundated requests from working parents and pregnant workers," Ms Hender said.

"Over and over we've heard from women forced to choose between keeping themselves and their families safe or keeping their jobs and their income."

In Anna's case, she eventually told her employer she was pregnant and they allowed her to work from home. While she was not under any obligation to disclose her condition, once she did she was protected under pregnancy discrimination laws.

Julia felt she had no choice but to quit her job to care for her children.

"They gave me other options but the other options weren't acceptable. I'm disappointed because I loved working there and did nothing wrong," she said.

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed the pandemic had a disproportionate impact on women's jobs.

READ MORE:

Around 5.3 per cent of women lost their jobs, compared to 3.9 per cent of men, while women's hours of work fell by 11.5 per cent compared to 7.5 per cent for men.

Ms Hender said she was helping women on unpaid carers or maternity leave whose employers did not want to pay them JobKeeper - under the law, they have to.

There were also cases where women were being asked to work more hours to justify the higher pay they receive under the wage subsidy scheme. This was not legal, Ms Hender said.

"Employers can change hours and shifts if you're a casual obviously, even a long term casual or even a long term ongoing employee your shift hours can change with consultation and notice but what would not be reasonable is if the only reason they are increasing your hours is because of the JobKeeper," Ms Hender said.

"That would not be reasonable and it would be reasonable for you to refuse that and you should still get JobKeeper as long as you meet those eligibility requirements."

Pregnant women who'd been laid off had also come to the centre for assistance.

"Sometimes it's framed as a redundancy but not really covered up all that well, like the position going up on Seek the week after," Ms Hender said.

"The pregnant worker will often be the first one considered for the redundancy and it's really difficult because the employee is the one that holds all the information about the business and it's sometimes really difficult for an employee to challenge whether something is a legitimate redundancy when we don't have access to that information but there's been quite a few where it's been quite obvious that pregnancy was a factor in that."

There have also been cases where women working from home have experienced an increase in domestic violence.

"That's something we've also receive calls about and we've really encouraged women in that position to keep in really regular contact with their employer and if it's possible, particularly at the moment if it would work for them, working out an arrangement and perhaps they do return to the office sooner than otherwise, " Ms Hender said.

"It can be really tricky because a lot of women are reluctant to disclose to their employer what's going on at home because they feel that it could be used against them, but there are some really great employers out there who do support women and can provide adjustments."

Ms Hender said there needed to be longer term supports for women as Australia emerged from the pandemic.

"Although people are starting to return to work now I think that the effects of these things are going to be really long term and we do need to think about how we support women," Ms Hender said.

"For example after the GFC and other kinds of major disruptions to our economy we saw those really long term effects so I hope that after things have died down, we don't forget women are going to need those additional supports and we certainly expect the increase [in women seeking help] to continue."

*not her real name

This story Discrimination against women in the workplace spikes during coronavirus pandemic first appeared on The Canberra Times.

Comments