World War II opened the door for women to the workforce. COVID-19 might spark another revolution

Melbourne 3000

Heather Renton never planned on working from home, let alone starting up her own organisation.

But she was forced into it after her employer gave her an impossible choice — she could keep her job, or care for her disabled daughter Rebecca, who had just reached school age.

“There was no after school care, and there was no NDIS, and my workplace didn’t offer me flexible hours, flexible days … so I had to resign,” she said.

“Yes, I was unhappy about it. I’d worked there for nine years.

“They did say I could come back in a less senior role. But why should I take a pay cut?”

Since then, Ms Renton has been working from a home office next to Rebecca’s playroom, running Syndromes Without A Name — the organisation she founded to support other parents of children with undiagnosed or rare genetic conditions.

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Watching millions of Australians suddenly adjusting to working from home gives her hope others might never have to face the choice she did.


Heather Renton helps support other parents of children with undiagnosed or rare genetic conditions. (Supplied)

“Sometimes I think we’re stuck still doing things the way we always have done them because no one’s thought to change,” she said.

“If people are seeing that employees are just as productive — and in some cases probably more productive at home — then hopefully that’ll change attitudes for the future.

“It’s like wearing gloves and hats to church. People don’t do it anymore.

“We can make changes and be adaptable. That’s what humans do. We evolve.”

The biggest workforce change since WWII

Economist Tim Harcourt said the seismic change in the way Australia works since the pandemic broke out is comparable only to World War II, when the government drafted women into jobs traditionally held by men.


The Australian Women’s Land Army was created to combat rising labour shortages in the farming sector during WWII. (Supplied: Griffith War Memorial Museum)

“They realised that it was actually very useful to have women working,” he said.

“We saw almost a permanent change — a huge increase in the labour force participation rate of females.

“Now, the coronavirus has meant that more women in particular have had to work at home.

“That will probably be a permanent change in the post-corona economy.”

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If there is such a change, it’s women who would overwhelmingly benefit.

Seven in 10 primary carers are women. Half of them live in Australia’s poorest households.

It’s even more lopsided when it comes to new parents.

In non-public sector jobs, women take 95 per cent of primary parental leave.

Only 42 per cent of women return to work within two years of having a baby, which in turn contributes to the gender wage gap.

One of the biggest barriers to change has been women and their partners being tied to jobs that demand a physical presence, during set business hours.

Now, that tradition has been smashed.

Are employers ready to let their workers off the leash?


COPE executive director Nicole Highet’s entire team works from home. (Supplied)

Nicole Highet, the executive director of The Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE) said there’s still scepticism among some employers.

“I have friends who work for organisations where they can tell if someone has moved the mouse on their computer or not,” she said.

Ms Highet and her staff — including several new parents — all work from home.

“Certainly with our team, it works,” she said.

“They don’t want to have to choose between home and work if they don’t have to.

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“I remember after having children and going back to work, thinking that standing around in the coffee room talking about what you did on a weekend was such a waste of time.

“It’s like — I don’t have time for these conversations. I need to get the work done so that I can get out and get back to my other commitments.

“You’ve got these two worlds, and these two identities, and if you can bring them together in any way, women will bend over backwards to make that work.”

Of course, those stuck at home due to coronavirus are doing everything they can to make it work — especially those who have lost jobs, and those caring for others.


Rebecca Harvey’s playroom is right beside her mum’s home office. (Supplied: Heather Renton)

But Heather Renton said once the crisis is over, Australian workers shouldn’t simply go back to how it used to be if they want more flexible arrangements.

“The majority of people are honest, they want to do the right thing,” she said.

“Carers want to contribute to society, but we don’t want the barriers in place that stop us doing that.

“People want to work. It’s good for your mindset, it’s good for your pocket. And I think if we can have flexibility around it, then that’s only going to be a good thing.”

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