The new report What women want from work post pandemic: Experiences and expectations of Western Sydney working women (PDF, 9.3MB), undertaken by the University of Sydney’s Gender Equality in Working Life Research Initiative, explores how the response to COVID-19 has reshaped expectations for working women across professions.
This includes breaking the “spatial leash” for those able to work from home and better wages and conditions for frontline workers – while access to flexible, accessible, affordable care is a universal ask.
“Many professional workers were able to work from home on a regular basis for the first time during the pandemic and they are loathe to give this up now,” explains the report’s co-author Rae Cooper AO, Professor of Gender, Work and Employment Relations at the University of Sydney Business School.
“They were productive and met deadlines while also having more autonomy to ‘time shift’ around their personal needs, from the school run to exercise and leisure time. Not needing to travel into the CBD for work every day also gave them invaluable time back in their day.
“There’s a heightened expectation from the women of Sydney’s suburbs that they’ll continue working from home regularly for some of their week in the long term, and they’re prepared to look elsewhere if their employer doesn’t want to offer this.
“It’s not the great resignation, yet, but workers have a lot of power in this market, so we are calling it the great contemplation – where workers are requesting flexibility and starting to think about better options if this is not forthcoming.”
The research, based on focus groups conducted from January to February 2022 with 45 women from various professional roles, family structures and life stages to understand their experiences of working during the pandemic and their future aspirations.
It included frontline workers, women who primarily worked from home through the pandemic, and women who ceased work or reduced their hours in 2021. All lived in Western Sydney suburbs that were subject to harsher lockdown restrictions in 2021, including from the Bayside, Blacktown, Burwood, Campbelltown, Canterbury-Bankstown, Cumberland, Fairfield, Georges River, Liverpool, Parramatta, Penrith and Strathfield local government areas.
All the respondents reported they enjoyed their work, found it valuable and rewarding, and viewed it as an essential part of their life. All were ambitious for ongoing work opportunities and career development, and all had ideas about how working life might be improved.
The findings highlight what women want at work under three themes: good jobs, good flexibility and good care.
“If businesses and government can address these three areas, they will raise the level of labour force participation among women from all walks of life,” explains the report’s co-author Elizabeth Hill, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
“Western Sydney is not the outlier; it is the norm and the women in our study represent the voices of women in middle Australia. Any work done to address these women’s concerns will have far-reaching benefits for communities and our economy.”
David Borger, Executive Director of Business Western Sydney, encouraged businesses to make note of the findings.
“Diverse workplaces deliver better productivity, growth, and risk management. Ensuring barriers to access work are removed is good for business, good for the economy and good for the career choices that women may make,” he said.
“Having a family and having a job shouldn’t be an either-or choice. Being able to obtain accessible and affordable care shouldn’t mean having to choose between employment or staying home to look after the kids.”
Dissatisfaction with pay was a common sentiment for both frontline and professional workers. Women working in frontline roles spoke particularly about a mismatch between wages and the cost of living – further exacerbated this year by rising inflation.
Women said they were hungry for development opportunities, and some had changed employers or were planning to move to secure better opportunities.
But the reality of balancing paid work and caring for children made many women too busy to find time and energy to pursue vocational training or higher education.
Associate Professor Hill said a whole-of-government approach is needed for the design, implementation, and evaluation of public policies for gender equality in work and care.
“Public investment in pre-school education and universal free early childhood education and care will allow women to work and care in the way they aspire.
“Longer, shared, and flexible paid parental leave, paid at wage replacement levels plus superannuation, is also required to support working mothers and their families. New investment in paid parental leave and early years education and care will boost participation, productivity and growth.”
Declaration: This research was commissioned by the NSW Government to inform the Treasury’s Women’s Economic Opportunity Review (2022).