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Women's economic security plan is no safety net

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Just days out from from the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (25 November), the government finally released its women’s economic security statement. Originally scheduled for September, the package built around three pillars — workforce participation, earning potential, and economic independence — totalling $109 million dollars over four years. It is a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed to address the crisis of gender violence and substantial inequality.

Kelly O'Dwyer at press conference (Stefan Postles/Getty images)

The Minister for Women, Kelly O’Dwyer, in her National Press Club speech announcing the statement, spoke of an Australia beyond her imagination as a child, where women were in positions of power — first female prime minister, first female foreign minister, first female governor-general, first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup. What she glossed over in sharing success stories was the common link — privilege.

This is not to shame the achievements of these trailblazers, but when O’Dwyer celebrated these women without pointing out that all of them are white, we only got half the story. To change the narrative on economic and social gender inequality we have to recognise the disparate experiences of women.

Further investment for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), an initiative from the first pillar, workforce participation, only goes part of the way to redressing information about the gender pay gap. Streamlining the reporting process for WGEA to allow organisations to voluntarily report on pay is essential in widening the dataset. The changes have the potential to grow participation in the survey from 40 per cent to 75 per cent of Australians and will crucially capture not-for-profits, where a large proportion of women are employed — often on low wages with insecure work.

And while WGEA’s analysis is invaluable, especially the breakdown of the pay gap by states, without including wage differences between white women and women of colour the picture of workplace inequality it paints is lacking. Recent research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) found that women from migrant backgrounds and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were less likely to be employed than white women (11.9 per cent and 14.2 per cent respectively).  

The first pillar also increases flexibility in the Paid Parental Leave system, which is a long overdue amendment, albeit one with a waiting period — it will be implemented for babies born or adopted on or after 1 July 2020. The change allows for the primary carer to split the allocated eighteen weeks of paid leave into blocks. However, their partner would still only receive two weeks paid leave and the Coalition has not matched Labor’s pledge to pay women's superannuation while they are on maternity leave. So this policy adjustment favours gender normative households in which the man is expected to be the breadwinner. This doesn’t cater to the growing number of rainbow families (46,800 same-sex couples in the last census) or encourage a shift in gender role attitudes within male/female couples.

The Coalition has gone big on buzzwords for its second pillar, better earning potential, with programs for ‘female founders’ and ‘future female entrepreneurs’. While fantastic at face value, when paired with the reality of a botched NBN these ideas are less promising. Prospering in the digital economy requires reliable internet access. After years of lobbying, NBN’s Sky Muster satellite service, which services regional and remote Australia, is only just being upgraded to meet delivery demands in the bush.


"This statement is the scraps we waited six months for. Is it any surprise that the same people who say ‘the best form of welfare is a job’ think this gives ‘women greater choice’."


Additionally, fostering female entrepreneurs encourages diversity but not disruption. Currently 34 per cent of entrepreneurs are women and this is fast growing, but a recent profile of the most influential entrepreneurs hints at it being a white woman’s game. Hopefully the government’s $3.6 million program targeted at 55,000 girls and young women will address the issue of access to capital — a glass ceiling for women of colour — as well as discrimination and a lack of mentors and adequate networks.

The third pillar, economic independence, relates to women escaping domestic violence. The government’s proposed policies in this area rely on women being self-reliant — drawing early on their superannuation or receiving micro loans — rather than supporting them with money. This is a double jeopardy as women often have 42 per cent less than men in their balance when they retire, while one in three women retire with no super at all. Women over 55 are already the fastest growing group of people experiencing homelessness in the country.

Frontline domestic violence services have been crying out for more funding to meet the demands of a strained system — in October a woman in Australia was killed almost every second day. This statement is the scraps we waited six months for. Is it any surprise that the same people who say ‘the best form of welfare is a job’ think this gives ‘women greater choice’.

The government’s women’s economic security statement is no safety net, especially if you’re poor, queer, not from the city, or not white.



Eliza BerlageEliza Berlage is a Canberra based journalist and podcast producer with a background in sociology. She currently works in the Parliament House press gallery as a researcher for The Conversation's chief political correspondent Michelle Grattan.


Main image: Kelly O'Dwyer at press conference (Stefan Postles/Getty images)

Topic tags: Eliza Berlage, women's economic security statement, domestic violence, Kelly O'Dwyer



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Existing comments

Thank you for this article. What a ridiculous idea to split maternity leave. We want parental bonding. If it has to be split, give the male parents more time

Mira Zeimer | 22 November 2018  

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