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Casting a gender lens over the upcoming Federal Budget

May 10, 2024 | Democracy, Leadership, Equality, disability, Gender, Fathering, Money and Finance, Mothering, Economics, Commentary, Feature

Written by Leonora Risse

The upcoming Federal Budget will spark much talk of surpluses and deficits, costs of living and inflation, taxes and jobs.

Beyond the headline announcements and standard statistics, get ready to look for the finer details of a gender analysis on all new policy proposals.

The 2024-25 Budget will be the next iteration of the Australian Government’s steps to apply a gender lens to policymaking through Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB).

As with most gender equality initiatives, GRB is often clouded by scepticism and misperceptions.

Here are five facts to help demystify what GRB is:

Gender Responsive Budgeting is not the same as a conventional “Women’s Budget Statement”

In attempt to close gender gaps in economic outcomes, Budgets over past decades have commonly contained a list of initiatives specifically aimed to help women.

Such policy packages – which tend to focus on issues like women’s safety, health and childcare – are crucial for addressing the particular needs of women. They are often a response to the urgent needs expressed by community groups who deal directly with the crisis circumstances women are facing.

But these initiatives amount to only a small slither of the billions of dollars of total expenditure that fill the Budget ledger. A list of “policies for women” is not what is meant by Gender Responsive Budgeting.

Now that we’ve ruled out what it’s not, what exactly is it?

Gender Responsive Budgeting applies a gender lens across the whole of the budget

Beyond a list of women-specific policies, GRB is a process that casts a gender lens more widely across the whole of the budget. It can apply to not just government spending, but also taxes, subsidies and transfers such as welfare payments.

It’s designed to detect policies that seem “gender neutral” but actually affect men and women in different ways.

These different impacts arise due to the different jobs, household roles, incomes, and patterns of economic participation and power, that men and women tend to experience throughout their lives.

Take, as a first example, Stage 3 tax cuts. The legislation doesn’t mention gender, but a gender-based analysis detected that men, on average, were the main beneficiaries.

This analysis was requested of the Parliamentary Budget Office by Greens Senator Adam Bandt. If GRB were in place, such analysis would be conducted automatically and available to policymakers before legislation is decided on.

A second fresh example is the contrast between the paid apprenticeship system that financially supports trade apprentices and the unpaid practical placements required in many care-oriented and other female-concentrated courses. The Budget’s proposed “prac placement” for students in social work, teaching, nursing and midwifery directly addresses this gender-patterned discrepancy.

As a third example, GRB was sorely needed during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the impacts of the pandemic, as well as the government’s policy response, were starkly gender-patterned. Jobs in male-dominated industries were propped by the HomeBuilder scheme, while childcare workers were singled out at the only occupation to lose eligibility for JobKeeper ahead of all others.

Disaster response and climate change is a further example of policy space that’s assumed to be gender neutral, but a gender lens shows it’s not:

  • After disaster events, violence against women spikes.
  • Government spending tends to focus on rebuilding physical infrastructure like roads and bridges, which boosts male-concentrated jobs. Meanwhile, additional demand on welfare, mental health and community support services, mainly delivered by women, are generally expected to be provided voluntarily and altruistically.
  • The industry leaders debating the economy’s transition to green energy – from the sectors of agriculture, resources, utilities and transport – have predominantly been male voices.

These gender-based insights empower policymakers with richer information to re-evaluate their budget priorities. To expand or modify existing policies where gender inequities are detected. And to ensure that their efforts to close gender gaps aren’t being offset by other measures elsewhere in the Budget.

A magnifying glass over financial charts and graphs, representing stock market analysis or business data presentation. High quality stock photo in the style of bokeh panorama, tiltshift lens

Gender-based insights empower policymakers with richer information to re-evaluate their budget priorities, writes Dr Leonora Risse. Image: Adobe Stock. 

Gender Responsive Budgeting is recognised as best practice policymaking globally

While some policymakers have dismissed the need to place a gender lens on policy – then Treasurer Scott Morrison scoffed that “you don’t fill out pink forms and blue forms on your tax return” – this critique doesn’t stack up against the fact that GRB is endorsed as best practice by key economic agencies worldwide.

This includes the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

A 2017 audit found that 80 countries worldwide had some form of gender-based budgeting in place.

Many, such as Canada’s ‘Gender-based Analysis-Plus’ approach, are applying an ‘intersectional’ gender lens that recognises the compounding effect of other factors, such as women’s socioeconomic background.

Until the Federal Government’s recent uptake, Australia was not one of these countries.

Which brings us to our next key fact…

Australia used to be a world leader in Gender Responsive Budgeting

In the 1980s, Australia led the way globally in applying a gender lens to the budget. This practice was undertaken by the Hawke Government’s Office for the Status of Women, under the helm of Anne Summers.

The process was diluted over time, and eventually abolished in 2014 under the self-appointed Minister for Women Tony Abbott.

The National Foundation for Australian Women (NFAW) stepped in to salvage the cause, and voluntarily produced a Gender Lens on the Budget report each year.

Meanwhile, several states have since stepped up to apply GRB at state government level: Victoria established a Gender Budgeting Unit in 2021 and now requires all public entities to conduct a gender impact assessment of their programs and services; Tasmania legislated GRB in 2022 and produced its first Gender Budget Snapshot in 2023-24; Queensland began a process of assessing the gender impact of all budget bids in 2023-24; and New South Wales is now rolling out gender impact assessments across its government policies.

Australia has now seen a resurgence of GRB at federal level, driven by the Minister for Finance, Minister for Women and Minister for the Public Service Katy Gallagher and, importantly, with support from the Prime Minister and Treasurer.

Australia’s volatile legacy of GRB highlights the importance of permanently embedding the practice, through mandates or legislation, to prevent another potential unravelling. Victoria has now taken this step and embedded GRB into law in its most recent 2024-25 State Budget.

The volatility of GRB over time also points to the need for treasury and finance departments to develop an authentic appreciation of GRB, as well technical capacity, as part of their departmental culture and practice of responsible policymaking.

Gender Responsive Budgeting isn’t just about policies for women

The process of gender lensing opens up policymakers’ eyes to the ways that policy settings can disadvantage men and boys, and people of all genders, too.

A vivid example is paid parental leave. Applying a gender lens makes it clear that former policy settings, that gave a mere two weeks to fathers, entrenched traditional roles and squeezed men out of the caregiving picture.

Policy changes that expanded the amount of leave available to fathers make it more socially and professionally acceptable for men to step into caregiving roles. And ultimately help men develop a healthier sense of masculinity that we know influences their behaviours, and treatment of women, across many other settings.

A promising opportunity

The wide applicability of gender lensing means there is greater scope to improve gender equity through policymaking than we might realise.

And for Australia to proudly reclaim its place as a global leader on gender equitable policymaking.

On Tuesday’s night reveal of this year’s Budget papers, it’s the GRB pages I’ll be keenly turning to first.

  • Please note: Picture at top is a stock image/Adobe Stock 

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Dr Leonora Risse is an economist who specialises in gender equality. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Canberra and a Research Fellow with the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia. Dr Risse engages regularly with governments and organisations on evidence-based strategies to close gender gaps and how to apply a “gender lens” to economic analysis and policy design.

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