Amid the flurry of data around International Women’s Day, which we celebrated on Wednesday (although I’m not sure that is the correct verb), one piece of it really stood out for me.
We are sold a positive story about women’s workforce participation – it has lifted considerably over time, resulting in greater financial security for women and huge productivity gains for the Australian economy.
In 1966, only 30 per cent of Australian women were in the paid workforce. Now it is 62 per cent.
But when Sam Mostyn, chair of the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce, spoke at the National Press Club on Thursday, she said something that greatly surprised me. “There has not been a single increase in women’s full-time workforce participation rate over the last four decades,” Mostyn said.
In other words, while more women are in paid employment than ever before, it is too often insecure, bitsy work that is much more likely to consign them to a lack of fulfilment and financial insecurity if not poverty. Taskforce member Professor Rae Cooper notes that this is despite huge increases in female tertiary education.
This is not to denigrate casual or part-time work – until recently, I worked part-time to fit in around my parenting duties. But quality, well-paid, part-time work is in short supply in Australia. Understanding this is crucial to tackling the structural disadvantages that keep women from exploring the full potential of their lives.
Put together all the pieces of the data puzzle – the gender pay gap, rates of single-parent poverty, the growing ranks of older homeless women, women’s low superannuation balances, and women’s lack of equal representation in leadership positions – and the real picture emerges.
It is a picture of precarity – of a life spent ducking in and out of employment, taking jobs, often insecure ones, to fit in around the needs of caring (and not just for their own children), of a lack of career progression, and of interrupted connection to the super and tax systems.
The least lucky women also have family violence to contend with: the Sophie’s Choice dilemma of needing to flee to find safety, only to find themselves in a position of great financial and social insecurity.
The precarity picture is unsustainable, not just for women, but for the economy. The nation’s expenses are increasing, and appear to have no ceiling: defence spending, aged care, the NDIS and the aged pension are all the biggest contributors to a worsening structural deficit. We need more women to find secure full-time work, pay more tax and do the jobs we need for society to function.
Even though women are over-represented in the care economy (without these workers society would grind to a halt), it is in what the prime minister calls “jobs of the future” where women can make a significant contribution, one that remains largely untapped.
With apologies to Virginia Woolf: imagine a young girl, who is not Shakespeare’s sister, but a future engineer whose intelligence could solve the problem of renewable energy storage at scale. Unfortunately for us, she marries a man who is abusive and she is forced into the poverty cycle of single parenthood. Or maybe she just drops out of the workforce in her 30s when she has kids, and she never quite manages to get her career back on track. Maybe she is sexually harassed at work, or just overlooked and underpaid. Perhaps she is raised in a single-parent household where the financial stress of her parent spills into substance abuse or parental detachment. She doesn’t have the domestic security she needs to excel at school. Her potential remains untapped, and we are all the poorer for it.
Mostyn’s taskforce is made up of 13 women with vastly different expertise. Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott is a member; so is Terese Edwards, the CEO of the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children.
The Labor government has pledged to make women’s equality a priority in its budget decisions. Mostyn’s taskforce will soon hand to Minister for Women Katy Gallagher a list of recommendations – the top things they believe Labor can do to improve women’s economic standing. On Thursday Mostyn said the taskforce would recommend the government restore the single-parenting payment to parents of children over eight years old.
In 2012, on the same day former prime minister Julia Gillard gave her famous misogyny speech, her government passed amendments pushing more than 80,000 single parents off this payment and onto the lower Newstart payment. In 2006, John Howard had already withdrawn the payment for new claimants once their youngest child turned eight, although families already on the payment were allowed to keep it until their youngest turned 16. The Gillard government ended that Howard-era grandfathering arrangement, defending it as a necessary budget cut.
As anyone who has cared for an eight-year-old will know, their needs are still intense. But that cohort of mostly women (women head 80 per cent of single-parent households), most of whom had more than one child, were suddenly expected to survive on about $100 a week less. Peter Davidson, of the Australian Council of Social Service, called it an “appalling policy … a cost-saving at the expense of families and children in the deepest poverty”.
It might seem counter-intuitive to extend the single-parenting payment if we want to guide women disconnected from the workforce back into employment. But we already know – because business has told us – that the low rate of Newstart is a barrier to employment, not an to work.
It is all part of the picture of precarity. It is very difficult to pour yourself into the mould of an attractive prospective employee when you’re living hand-to-mouth. It’s even harder when you have several mouths to feed, clashing school and extracurricular activities to juggle, and possibly an abusive ex (many women in this cohort are domestic violence victims), or just one who doesn’t pay child support.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has spoken proudly of his upbringing by a single mother who lived in poverty. So he should – it’s the hardest job there is. The upcoming budget represents his chance to put his money where his mouth is, and restore some dignity to this overlooked group.
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