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'No plan at all': Australia’s worsening gender equality problem

Have Australia's women been forgotten in the economic recovery plan? Images: Getty
Have Australia's women been forgotten in the economic recovery plan? Images: Getty

Gender equality is slowly happening in Australia but coronavirus has done damage.

Experts say the pandemic has put Australia well and truly behind the global eight ball when it comes to addressing financial gender equality.

“There is no plan at all to help women recover from the financial hit of the pandemic, particularly older women,” says Dr Linda Peach Diversity and Inclusion Consultant.

“The Australian government seems to have decided to ignore these well-known differences in financial security between women and men.”

Her comments come as new data by the government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, shows that workplaces are gradually improving their gender dynamics in leadership with more women taking on management positions at a faster rate than men.

WGEA and Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre research also shows that there is a now a greater positive link between having women in key management positions and achieving company outperformance.

Such findings are great news for women in the workplace but are more difficult to celebrate right now because of the impact of the pandemic.

Unlike New Zealand, which recently announced $1 million fund to help services that support women and girls affected by Covid-19, the Australian government is yet to acknowledge we have a growing financial equity issue.

Michelle Redfern the managing director of Advancing Women in Business and Sport says the federal government’s Covid-19 stimulus packages are likely to damage gender equality because they completely ignore women.

“The stimulus package so far is completely gendered, particularly when you consider the jobs for boys in the construction industry.

“Instead the childcare package was the first to be cut ahead of time, which exacerbates a lot of the issues that we see women taking the load for.

“Women are more likely to be mentally, physically and finally vulnerable during this period and there is not a lot of recognition of that,” says Redfern.

Here are three key areas where women have been affected.

1. The workforce: Women have been hardest hit in terms of the initial impact of Covid-19 industry shutdowns, ABS Payrolls data shows.

2. Unpaid work: Many women are doing so much more unpaid work such as cooking, cleaning and caring because of the pandemic than they used to, and often considerably more than their partners.

3. Financial security: The gap between men and women on the financial front is expected to widen due to job cuts, increased unpaid work, and the government’s early access to super scheme.

“In the post-pandemic world, the primary issue for many older women will simply be how to survive until they can get the aged pension, and many of them won't have enough in super to see them through,” says Dr Peach.

“This is how homelessness becomes the norm for many women in this age group.

"None of this is new or not already known by policy makers and politicians and governments and organisations.”

“Older women are going to be particularly vulnerable, because many would not have had super contributions being paid for the first 10 or 15 years of their working lives, and the accumulated disadvantage that women have faced in the workforce over their lives means they had a much smaller pool of superannuation to draw on before the pandemic hit,” says Dr Peach.

The median superannuation account balance for Australian woman was only $45,000 for the 2017-18 financial year, compared to $65,000 for men, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The government’s early access to super scheme gives people in financial hardship the ability to withdraw up to $20,000 of their balance, which for many women is half of their retirement savings.

Concerns are growing that pandemic-related financial hardships will see an upswing in homelessness among older men and women in coming years.

The number of women over 55 years of age who were homeless increased by an alarming 31 per cent to 6,866 in 2016, up from 5,234 persons in 2011, according to the most recent Census by the ABS in 2016, as reported in 2018.

By contrast men accounted for 63 per cent of older persons who were homeless on Census night in 2016, increasing by 26 per cent (2,407 persons) to 11,757.

While the coronavirus hasn’t been good for gender equality, the pandemic has effectively made flexible work more normalised.

“It has reduced the level of fear that managers might have in not having people in the office, while at the same time staff have become used to working at home and there will be less fear of isolation and lack of contact with colleagues, particularly with the Zoom revolution that we have seen,” says Dr Peach.

"There is still a long way to go on achieving gender equality, don't get me wrong, but if flexible work for women and men becomes the norm rather than the exception post-pandemic, then current and future generations of young women will be less vulnerable to financial hardship later in life,” she says.

Bianca Hartge-Hazelman is the author of the Financy Women’s Index and founder of women’s money website She is also a proud contributor and supporter of Yahoo Finance’s Women’s Money Movement. Join the movement here.