Equality for women? Don’t make me laugh

By Lin Hatfield Dodds


I have no time for those who airily claim that women have scaled the Everest of equality and triumphantly planted a flag right on the peak. Please. Don’t make me laugh. Or cry.

Over the past decade or so, we’ve heard the victory cry that feminism is over – that it’s no longer needed, that the battles have been won, that women have achieved equality.

It’s true, some giant strides have been taken. We vote, we work, we run companies, head up political parties, mount expeditions to improbable parts of the world, achieve breakthroughs in science and significantly shape the arts.

But we are still the primary carers of our children (and increasingly our parents), we are more likely to be in casual or part time than full time work, we are less educated and are still paid less than men.

In spite of the leaps we’ve made since the 1970s when women in Australia moved into the workforce en masse, the reality is that life is still pretty bloody tough for many women, especially those who are disadvantaged and living on welfare payments.

A life on welfare is emphatically not a lifestyle choice. Women on welfare struggle to survive on manifestly inadequate levels of payment, with little or no access to the supports and services that would enable them to scale the barriers they face to belong, contribute to and be valued by the wider community.

The Newstart allowance for a single person with no dependents is $238 a week. For a sole parent the rate is $257 a week. The single pension, the disability support pension, or a carer payment, is $335 a week. Rent alone in most Australian cities sets you back by more than those amounts.

Year 10 is the highest educational achievement for 80 per cent of single parents on welfare, the vast majority of whom are women. That’s a big skills gap to the current labour market. Combined with the scarcity of appropriate, affordable childcare, it’s not a big surprise that many single mums on the welfare cycle are in and out of low skill, low paid jobs.

In spite of the economic boom we’ve been enjoying for over a decade, more than one in ten Australians, many of them women, struggle to survive and make ends meet in the face of overwhelming daily disadvantage and exclusion. Ten per cent is an appalling statistic in a country as wealthy as ours.

Income inequality is growing in Australia. The Government has a very challenging task, guided by the work done by Ken Henry, as it considers the adequacy, equity, and simplicity of our tax and transfers systems in what the Treasurer has called our patchwork economy.

There is a significant difference in average weekly earnings for men and women. While full-time adult earnings for both women and men increased by more than half in the ten years to 2007, over that period women’s earnings were consistently lower, by around 20 per cent.

That’s right, men earn, on average, 20 per cent more than women. When I trawled the data, I could not find one sector in which women earn more than men. From mining to manufacturing, from retail to finance and marketing, from government and administration to hospitality to recreational and cultural services to media, we earn less. Even in those bastions of women workers, the education, health and community services sectors, men still earn more.

And the news from the home front is just as grim. ABS Time Use Surveys tell us that women spend, on average, nearly three hours a day on domestic activities, compared to the hour and a half devoted to the home by men. Women spend more time on purchasing goods and services, more on cooking, more on cleaning, and more on voluntary work and care than men. In 2006, women spent nearly three times longer each day on primary child care activities than men.

If this relative positioning of women and men on so many indicators was not bad enough, as a population group, women are broadly divided in terms of opportunity and quality of life.

There are two tracks for women in Australia today. The first track is for women who are privileged. These women don’t have to worry about shelter, or whether their children’s bellies are growling with hunger. They can afford a visit to the GP and buy medicine when required, and they can afford regular dental checkups for themselves and their families. They are educated, healthy and have a high degree of autonomy over their lives and the choices they make.

The other track is trodden by women whose world is marked by what they don’t have and can’t get. Women who struggle to live with dignity every day, without adequate finances, in the face of significant structural barriers to participation in the labour market and broader community. Women living in locationally disadvantaged areas, where no one has a job, whose children experience poor health, and who worry constantly about safety and making ends meet.

What are we to think about these two classes of Australian women? The recent Fair Work Australia ruling on the relationship of gender to some types of low-paid work offers an opportunity for us to pause, collectively draw breath, and consider what it means that so many women are trapped in cycles of poverty and exclusion on welfare, and in low paid work, in a country enjoying the longest mining boom in history.

The impacts on women left behind while others enjoy the booming elements of our patchwork economy are deep. The impacts are also intergenerational. We know that children who grow up in jobless households are far less likely to find and keep a job when they grow up, than kids who grow up surrounded by adults who work.

ARACY research released in the last week, highlight that finishing year 12 is the strongest predictor of getting and keeping a decent job in adult life. Locational disadvantage is a negative predictor of stable secure work.

These are structural issues. They are system issues that can only be overcome by system responses.

The fact is that a person’s life chances are determined in large part by circumstances out of their control. No baby chooses the family they are born into, or where that family lives, but family of origin and location are increasingly strong predictors of an Australian’s life chances.

It’s time to stop blaming women who struggle to live with dignity on very little. I am so over comfortable armchair commentators, blind to structural inequalities, who seem to believe the blockbuster movie narrative that people can actually pull themselves out of poverty by their bootstraps.

Work is important to women’s health and wellbeing. Because women still do the majority of parenting in Australia, decent work for women is important to the health and wellbeing of many Australian children. Secure and adequately remunerated work however, is not enough on its own.

It’s too easy to assert that work is the silver bullet to address disadvantage and exclusion and that all unemployed Australians need to do is get out of their chairs and get a job. Really? If that’s true why is the number of working poor households growing across our country?

Work is not all that’s required. The work must be secure, and have decent pay and conditions. Ideally an initial low paid and low skilled job will lead to a better job, and then an even better job, and so on.

Work must be flexible enough for women to be able to juggle work and quality parenting. Clearly, as a nation we need to invest more in quality childcare, in access to training and skills acquisition. The Federal Government gets that.

What the Federal Government is actively ignoring is the manifest inadequacy of welfare payments – the ugly elephant in the national policy room. No one can live decently on any Australian transfer payment for any length of time. I challenge anyone to try.

Our welfare system was largely designed in a time when unemployment was short term and sporadic, and the payment levels reflect that. While you might be able to survive on welfare payments to bridge some weeks without paid work, you can’t live decently on them over the long term. For far too many women today, unemployment is long-term and endemic.

Unless and until we acknowledge the inherent dignity of each person by a practical and persistent commitment to rights-based policy and practice we will never close the gaps. Women will continue to travel on one of two tracks, and on both tracks we will be paid less and have access to less opportunity than men.

It’s important that every woman gets a fair go. It’s important that we get it right on adequate and equitable welfare payments, on paid maternity leave, on access to quality childcare, on equitable pay in industries dominated by women. It’s essential that we ensure every woman can access basic supports and services, including safe and affordable housing, transport, health and education.

We are living in a country where 11 per cent of the population is living in poverty, where over 100,000 people are homeless, where hundreds of thousands of people are on public dental waiting lists, where our 2 million welfare recipients can’t access the supports and services they need to get and keep a job, while trying to survive on woefully inadequate levels of payment. This is not the Australia I want to live in.

I want to live in a country where every citizen is valued. Where every person has the opportunity to participate in, and contribute to, their community. Where women have the same opportunities and outcomes as men. Where diversity is celebrated and where government takes a strong lead in delivering social justice and inclusion for all.

Women as a population group generally fall behind men on too many indicators. For disadvantaged women, the descent is accelerated with many women finding themselves and their children on a road to a place from which it is very difficult, if not impossible, to return.

While the country is enjoying historic prosperity, we can and must do better. As Tracey Chapman sings: If not now, then when?

Lin Hatfield Dodds is the National Director of UnitingCare Australia.

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