Published by the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, University of Canberra

Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Unpacking the cumulative inequality of Australian women

Mar 23, 2022 | Commentary, Policy, Equality, Research, Aging, Gender, Poverty, Money and Finance, Feature

This year’s International Women’s Day theme of #BreakTheBias invited us all to imagine a world that’s free of inequality, bias and discrimination. While advocacy work has highlighted the deep-rooted inequality experienced by women in many parts of the world, it has also drawn attention to a cohort of older adults that are suffering the most – women.

And the data is currently showing us that:

  • Women retire with 24% less super than their male counterpart
  • 34% of single Australian women over 60 live in income poverty
  • 59% of those accessing homeless services are women

If older women are most at risk of poverty and more likely to experience homelessness at retirement, then what has contributed towards these dire statistics? The answer to this question is arguably complex, but in part, can be explained by understanding cumulative inequality. Let’s unpack.

Fundamentally, women’s cumulative inequality is upheld by social systems that generate inequality. These systems manifest over their life course and influence women’s personal trajectories, including their exposure and accumulation of risk and the kinds of resources available to them.

A good example is that of unpaid work. While we may not value unpaid work from a monetary perspective, it’s still a form of work that satisfies a need. More women undertake unpaid domestic or family caring work, while men outsource it or have someone devoted to doing it. These dynamics form part of the social structure that maintains the economic insecurity of women.

While we may be socialised to accept and even expect women to take on this role, it’s also no coincidence that women belong to the largest constituents of low-paid and part-time workers.

Recently, it was reported that Australian women form 67% of part-time workers and earn 14.1% less than men.

If we include unequal pay, the promotion gap and the superannuation gap into the equation, the result is gendered poverty. Ultimately, the experiences of women that include career disruptions, unpaid work, caring responsibilities and mom tax all compound over women’s lifecycles to result in the conception of poverty at retirement.

What this is showing us is that our current social and economic structures lead to and maintain inequality. But more importantly, we ought to acknowledge and appreciate that inequality is fundamentally not the result of individual choices and actions but is structurally generated. As articulated by Elizabeth Broderick, the former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, “there is no one single point where the gap begins and ends”.

Understanding the accumulation of inequality helps us to understand how social and economic structures fail women on a systemic basis.  And while we may not have all the answers to solve this problem, what we can do is collectively use our voices to RISE in order to advocate for:

Representation

Inclusion

Social Reform and

Economic Empowerment

Bernice King, the daughter of civil rights activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, recently tweeted, “If you don’t think representation matters, you’re probably well-represented.” Part of breaking the bias is stressing and illuminating the underrepresentation of Australian women in positions of leadership.

While women make up close to 50% of the workforce, only a third occupy key management positions across all industries. Even fewer women are represented as CEOs and chairs of boards (18 percent and 15 percent respectively). The long-standing biases that women do not aspire to the highest ranks of organisations contributes to these figures when in fact the Harvard Business Review reported that women score higher in leadership skills.

Dr Bomikazi Zeka

Dr Bomikazi Zeka believes a truly fair and bias-free society, is one where everyone has equal access to opportunities. Picture: David Beech

Inclusive policies that acknowledge and consider the career patterns of women is a central part of correcting gender inequality. More so, policy should incorporate and demonstrate how the cumulative disadvantage of women is considered in the design of gender-neutral policies. Because if we can identify, acknowledge and address how and why women are slipping through the cracks, then we can develop policies that addresses the gender income inequality gap.

The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu once famously stated that: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

If we consider that data on housing insecurity, homelessness, income insecurity and gender pay gap, it’s all connected and speaks to the issues facing most Australian women. So why not streamline what would otherwise be independent policy areas of employment, healthcare, social protection, housing support and pensions? What this would do is encourage a minimum universal social protection threshold for all women throughout their lifecycle and address the issues that are central to the eradication of poverty.

Because poverty is not just a matter of monetary deprivation. It permeates every aspect of a person’s life. Rania El Mugammar articulated that “poverty monopolizes your time, you spend hours waiting for underfunded transit, healthcare and social services.”

Time negotiating payments, filling out paperwork, walking to save bus fare, going far for work or even just to pay less for something. It steals your life in instalments.”  The economic inclusion and empowerment of women is thus a pivotal part of correcting cumulative inequality. This means that all women should be able to participate in economic decision-making at all levels because equality is also access to opportunities. And a truly fair and bias-free society, is one where everyone has equal access to opportunities.

  • Please note: Feature photo is a stock image. 

Dr Bomikazi Zeka is an Assistant Professor in Finance and Financial Planning at the University of Canberra. Bomikazi’s core body of work relates to the retirement planning strategies and challenges of economically disadvantaged groups, particularly women and people of colour. Her research agenda also seeks to address the consequences of inadequate retirement funding on families, communities, and social structures.

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