Will Australia and the EU achieve global gender equality in a post COVID-19 world?

5th January 2021

Author: Dr Diann Rodgers-Healey

In a year marked by the unprecedented global COVID-19 pandemic, the stark reality of its impact on women globally in 2020 could not be clearer. An analysis of the gender implications of the pandemic by McKinsey[1] found that although women make up 39% of global employment, they account for 54% of overall job losses. Female jobs are 19% more at risk than male ones, simply because women are disproportionately represented in sectors negatively affected by the pandemic. As women do an average of 75% of the world’s total unpaid-care work, the rise of these demands during the pandemic contributed to the gender gap in vulnerability to job losses.

The COVID-19 crisis has also highlighted that the lack of progress globally toward gender equality has exacerbated the COVID-19 pandemic’s gender impact.

Propelled by pre-COVID-19 gender equality data and analysis, and the clamour of the pandemic’s gender impact, Australia and the European Union (EU)’s renewed attempts in 2020 to address progress towards gender equality, have been timely and gained attention.

On 26 November 2020, the Australian Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) 2020 Gender Equality Scorecard[2] of non-public sector employers with 100 or more employees, over 2019-2020 had some good news. Flexible work and paid parental leave for employees had increased and for the first time in 7 years with over 50% of employers now offering paid parental leave to their staff, up 3 percentage points (pp) to 52.4%. Women’s promotions rose to 39.9% of all managers, with 44.7% of manager appointments going to women. Employers with a policy or strategy on domestic violence had also increased by over 6pp to 66.4%.

However, there was a small drop in the gender pay gap, down 0.7 pp to 20.1%. Though employers supporting flexible work was up by 3.2pp to 75.9%, only 2.2% have set targets for men’s engagement.

The improvement in gender balance at the top was marginal.  Female CEOs increased to 18.3%, up 1.2pp and female representation on boards increased by 1.3pp to 28.1%. Women dominate part-time (75.1%) and casual (56.3%) roles. Disappointingly[3], there was a 1.7pp increase in organisations analysing pay data (up to 46.4%), but only 54.4% (down 6.1pp) of employers took action to close the gaps.

On 29 October 2020, the EU’s Gender Equality Index[4] was announced to be 67.9 out of 100 by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) which stated that the EU is improving by just half a point each year, and at this rate, it is at least 60 years away from reaching complete gender equality.

The EU’s 2020 Gender Equality Index and Report[5] is mostly based on data from 2018 across 28 EU countries. The Index’s 31 Indicators are scored across core domains of work, money, knowledge, time, power, health, violence against women and intersecting inequalities with scores ranging from 1 (total inequality) to 100 (total equality).

The EU was found to be closest to gender equality in the domains of health (88.1 points) and money (80.4 points), but not in the domain of power (53.5 points) measuring the engagement of women and men in decision-making in social and economic sectors.

The domain of Power, remaining the lowest scoring domain, which accounts for 65 -% of all progress in the EU’s Gender Equality Index since 2010, reflected improved gender balance on company boards of some EU’s Member States. Although, the Member States vary between listed companies following mandatory quotas like France[6] and Belgium[7], to applying soft law quotas, to having no sanctions, like Denmark and Germany, the Report[8] found that EU countries that have imposed binding quotas have the most significant improvements in the representation of women on boards.

One of the critical issues contributing to the uneven progress in the EU is the determination and use of finance for gender equality action in the EU. The EU allocated €6.17 billion to Member States, but left it up to them in 2016-2019 to manage funds on the ground. Studies[9] commissioned found that commitment to gender equality is not reflected in spending and that gender budgeting is not applied in the EU budget and across all funding programmes[10].

In Australia, discussions about quotas are more frequent in relation to the underrepresentation of women in politics, where the Australian Labor Party’s successful adoption of a 50% gender quota stands against the Liberal’s resistance to implement gender quotas[11]. However, in Australia’s corporate world, quotas continue to be controversial[12]. Targets and disclosure are instead advocated[13].

2020 also hailed Victoria’s Gender Equality Act 2020, a first in Australia, as there is no legislation that requires public sector organisations to actively demonstrate progress towards improving gender equality.

The Gender Equality Act 2020 sets new obligations for the Victorian public sector, universities and local councils to plan, implement strategies and report on gender equality in the workplace[14]. Commencing on 31 March 2021, the Act requires these organisations to “do gender impact assessments of all new policies, programs and services that directly and significantly impact the public, as well as those up for review... and to report on gender impact assessments every 2 years[15].” 

The Gender Equality Act 2020 also requires organisations to consider intersectionality when developing strategies, and has established the Public Sector Gender Equality Commission [16] to provide education, support implementation and enforce compliance. Non-compliance permits the Public Sector Gender Equality Commissioner to enforce compliance[17]:

What is striking about the Gender Equality Act 2020 is that its foundation enunciates principles that are aligned to women’s rights. In the Discussion Paper[18] for the Victorian Gender Equality Bill 2018, the Bill established a series of gender equality principles for prescribed entities, which included that “Gender equality is a human right and precondition to social justice” and “ is a precondition for the prevention of family violence and other forms of violence against women and girls.” The principles[19] on the whole move beyond a focus on economic rationales, protection against discrimination and comparative frames of equality and power between women and men, to dismantling gender bias acknowledging the human rights of women, beyond their rights to work.

In terms of budgeting for this gender equality action, the Victorian Government’s 2020/2021 state budget[20] allocated $30 million for a range of gender equality initiatives, including $13 million to support the implementation of the Gender Equality Act 2020[21]. At a federal level, however, the 2020 Federal Budget, with its allocation of $240 million[22] over four years to support women's workforce participation, safety, entrepreneurship and more, was shown to be incredibly inadequate[23], equating to about $40 a woman[24] in comparison to the overall spend of $500 billion[25].  

EU’s Gender Action Plan III (2021-25) (GAPIII) announced on 24 November 2020 aims to apply this fiscal policy approach[26]. GAP III’s Institutional and Strategic objectives and Indicators[27] plan hits all the key areas to do with gender mainstreaming, gender budgeting and systematic use of gender specific and/or sex-disaggregated indicators. It introduces stringent rules for gender mainstreaming across sectors and Member States and promotes an intersectional approach. The success of GAPIII is reliant on Member States’ commitment to it and its regular evaluation and enforcement in line with the GAPIII’s intent and specified objectives. 

If lessons are to be learned or reignited for achieving substantive gender equality, it is clear that Gender Mainstreaming, gender responsive budgeting and quotas are essential to achieving gender equality.

Dismantling legacies that are not aligned with the purpose of egalitarian and productive nations and applying best practice knowledge and global insights for gender equality action, will ensure Australia and the EU are substantively gender equal in a post-COVID-19 era.


Dr Diann Rodgers-Healey is Director of the Australian Centre for Leadership for Women (ACLW). She is Adjunct Professor of the Cairns Institute in James Cook University, Australia.


[18] Gender Equality Bill 2018 exposure draft Discussion paper, https://engage.vic.gov.au/gender-equality

[19] Gender Equality Bill 2018 exposure draft Discussion paper, https://engage.vic.gov.au/gender-equality