Men are bearing the brunt of pandemic pain, says Labor MP Clare O’Neil

‘The point I am making is not that women are not suffering. Of course they are. My point is that everyone is suffering’: Labor spokesperson Clare O'Neil.
‘The point I am making is not that women are not suffering. Of course they are. My point is that everyone is suffering’: Labor spokesperson Clare O’Neil.

Men are now the biggest economic victims of the coronavirus pandemic but their plight is being ignored due to false perceptions of male privilege, ­according to Labor spokes­woman Clare O’Neil.

In a major speech to the McKell Institute on Monday, the Melbourne MP will call for the end of gender wars and say there needs to be a recognition that male workers are suffering in greater numbers than women.

Ms O’Neil will tell the Labor-aligned think tank that evidence shows women are now returning to jobs in retail, hospitality and other female-dominate sectors hardest hit by the initial COVID-19 lockdown, but 3.3 million lower-skilled male workers in the suburbs and ­regions are bearing the longer-term structural pain of the pandemic.

The problem is made worse because public debate has become so centred on gender lines that the suffering of these men is ignored or dismissed because of an ideological view that all men enjoy greater economic power.

“It’s not a competition ­between the genders, especially when it comes to who is doing it tougher in a bloody awful ­recession,” Ms O’Neil will tell the think tank according to extracts from her speech.

“The point I am making is not that women are not suffering. Of course they are. My point is that everyone is suffering.

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“Women had it worse to begin with. Now it is men, and there is evidence that as the months progress, we may see more of this.

“When women were clearly worst affected, it generated a very lively political conversation. And now that men are more severely affected, it feels like a problem we are less comfortable talking about.”

Ms O’Neil, a member of the party’s Victorian Right faction and Labor’s innovation and technology spokeswoman, will base her speech on data that shows — as of September — that men are more likely to be unemployed than women.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics figures also show the rate of male unemployment rose faster than for women during the pandemic, and that more men have left the workforce in the past year — an exit hastened by the virus.

The rate of male underemployment is also gaining on that suffered by women, who have historically far outstripped men in working insufficient hours.

Separate forecasting by McKinsey shows projected job losses over the coming six months at their highest in construction (88 per cent male workers), manufacturing (73 per cent male) and professional services (57 per cent male). The analysis estimates that when JobKeeper and JobSeeker are withdrawn next year, just under half a million jobs will be lost. More than 60 per cent of those jobs are held by men.

In her speech, Ms O’Neil cites the example of Qantas, which — despite receiving $800m in federal government assistance — has still cut 6000 workers and outsourced its entire 2500-strong ground crew, almost all of whom are male. Of the jobs lost and under threat, Ms O’Neil says they are predominantly in the outer suburbs and ­regions, and particularly acute in places such as suburban Adelaide, the outer fringes of Melbourne, the NSW central coast and Coffs Harbour and in southeastern Queensland.

She will say that none of these men are getting the attention they deserve because the narrative around male privilege is focused on the economic power and success of wealthy, inner-city males.

She will also warn that the plight of these men is being ­ignored because of a narrative that focuses on men who are violent and misogynistic, and that they risk drifting to the political extremes if they continue to be dismissed. “There’s a broader political culture here that I worry isn’t leading to the kind of open discussion that we need to move forward,” Ms O’Neil will say.

“We are clearly comfortable talking about issues that primarily affect women — and that’s brilliant, and important.

“But I wonder if we feel the same freedom to give unapologetic focus to some of the issues I’ve discussed today.

“The public conversation — like so much of the political discussion today — feels to me very polarised.”



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