Young women hit most by recessions, especially this one

Niche workforce, young women, hit hardest by recession

This recession has hit women doubly hard. Picture: Shutterstock

This recession has hit women doubly hard. Picture: Shutterstock


If any good comes out of coronavirus, maybe a reassessment of how Australia structures its workplaces will be it.


We are entering our first pink-tinged recession.

The official unemployment figures released on Thursday confirmed female work has has been more heavily impacted than male work. Since February 457,517 women have lost their jobs and 380,737 men.

The disparity is likely to be worse when JobKeeper ends. The jobs at risk are concentrated in female-dominated industries.

This might be thought to be reason enough for the government to focus its recovery efforts on supporting female jobs rather than "shovel ready" male-dominated jobs such as those in the construction industry. But there's another reason.

Women report poorer mental health than men. When responding to Australia's Household Income and Labour Dynamics (HILDA) survey 20 per cent of women report having diagnosed depression or anxiety, compared with 13 per cent of men.

Young women suffer doubly

Using almost 20 years of HILDA data (2001-2018) we have compared changes in people's mental health in locations that are experiencing increased unemployment with changes in other times and locations, controlling for other things that might impact mental health. Women in their early-20s and mid-40s are more affected by local economic downturns than men. These ages are the ones in which women's involvement in the labour market is the highest - just before and after having children.

For women in their early-20s every one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate is estimated to increase the number of women with poor mental health by about 7 per cent.

This suggests an increase in the unemployment rate from about 5 per cent in February to the peak of 10 per cent forecast by the Reserve Bank could increase the number of young women with poor mental health by about 33 per cent.

It would increase the number of young men with poor mental health by about 20 per cent.

Searching for explanations

It might be that because women typically spend fewer active years in the labour market, the effect of unemployment in those years is more devastating.

A spell out of the workforce with children after a spell out of the workforce with unemployment means a woman who lost her job during a recession might never obtain the lifetime earnings she would have expected.

Women in their early-20s and mid-40s are more affected by local economic downturns than men.

Further analysis of the HILDA data supports this contention. Among young women the association between unemployment and poor mental health is much stronger for those that would like to have children.

Women in their mid-40s (who are often trying to re-enter the workforce after focusing on children) are also much more prone to poor mental health than men during downturns, perhaps because it's their last chance to build up lifetime earnings.

We need a two-pronged approach

Australia's last recession, in the early-1990s, hit the jobs of men much harder than those of women. This recession looks different. Women are being hurt more than men, and the effects on the mental health of women aged in their early-20s and early-40s will amplify the difference.

The right approach is to ensure recovery programs are directed towards industries that employ women, and to boost funding for mental health care, especially programs designed for women.

The Royal Commission into Victoria's mental health care system found it "failed to aid those who are most in need of high-quality treatment, care and support".

It isn't a good start.

  • Angela Jackson is a PhD candidate at Monash University, David Johnston is a professor of health economics at Monash University and Nicole Black is an associate professor, Centre for Health Economics, at Monash University. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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