We are delighted to have Catherine Fox, one of Australia's leading commentators on women and the workforce partner with us for a three-part blog series. The third in this series continues to discuss the challenges women face in acquiring and maintaining a leadership role.
Late last year Richard Denniss, chief economist at the Australia Institute, made a speech outlining the three big lies that are holding women back in Australia.
There’s a persistent narrative that gender inequality is a result of bad choices; that more evidence is needed to make policy changes; and that we can’t afford to do anything about it, he explained.
The glue that binds the three big lies: they are all victim blaming.
After demolishing each of these furphies, he asked the audience at the Breakthrough 2016 conference, (organized by the Victorian Women’s Trust), how it was that a society as rich as Australia could for more than a century, overlook the needs of half of its population?
The fact many people in power are quite comfortable with the way the current division of labour works was certainly part of the answer, he said. I suspect willful blindness and powerfully gendered assumptions also play a role.
It’s a theme I have examined in detail in my latest book ‘Stop fixing women”, so it’s no wonder his comments particularly resonated with me.
And while the diagnosis of this entrenched problem is dispiriting, Denniss’ conclusions – just like mine - are that effectively addressing these barriers is more than possible.
The big truth is that tackling gender inequality isn’t a women’s problem, it’s an Australian opportunity, as Denniss concluded.
That’s where I ended up too. Even though my analysis found there were lots of vested interests which make defending the status quo attractive, the upside of tackling gender unfairness is massive.
One of the most significant outcomes of gender inequality – and which needs urgent attention - is the shocking discrepancy between women’s and men’s retirement savings.
Women currently have about 45% of men’s superannuation savings and are more likely to end up in poverty or homeless, even when they start their own business.
This is no side issue. Given the move to a mostly self-funded retirement system in Australia, the problems women are encountering in saving for their old age has a widespread impact on the economy.
The main ingredients for this awful outcome includes broken tenure in paid work, mostly due to breaks for caring and time out on parenting leave, and the gender pay gap which sees women clustered in low paid and low skilled casual work.
Instead of fobbing women off and focusing on the dire consequences of building fairer workplaces instead of the positives, it’s time to get those in power to take the lead and paint a different picture.
And to take practical steps. A couple of years ago, as I outline in my book, ANZ announced a new policy to top up by 1% a year superannuation accounts of less than $50,000 held by women employees.
It’s a strong example of making a change that addresses structural unfairness faced by women and is perfectly congruent with the core work of a financial services organization.
While the discussion on women’s retirement savings has become more mainstream in recent years, there has been a tendency to suggest some of these significant problems will be addressed if women become more financially literate.
It’s good advice for everyone, of course. But no amount of literacy about savings and superannuation will single-handedly bridge the gender pay gap.
Nor will it change the socio-economic factors which result in many women having broken tenure in paid work which hampers their ability to save for retirement.
Those are much bigger problems which can only be addressed by those with the power to influence policy and practices in workplaces. Many of these decision-makers are still men and their efforts are crucial to effective action.
The belief that women are disadvantaged in the labour market and with income distribution because they make bad choices is definitely blaming the victim, as Denniss points out.
When we stop the blame game, pay attention to the evidence and look at answers a very different picture emerges. It shows the major boost to our economy from closing the gender gap.
To stop fixing women is to start seeing an economic and social opportunity for all of us.
Stop Fixing Women: Why building fairer workplaces is everyone’s business
Millions of words have been spent in our quest to explain men’s seemingly never-ending dominance in boardrooms, in parliaments, in the bureaucracy and in almost every workplace. So why is gender inequality still such a pressing issue?