It’s been many years since there’s been an energetic agenda for women’s policy and Elizabeth Broderick is to be applauded for drawing attention last week to the continuing inequality between men and women in Australian society.

Research to be released in a forthcoming report on equality has found that the pay gap between men and women persists, with men’s accumulated wealth being as much as $330,600 compared with an average of $88,500 for women in sectors such as finance and insurance.

In a forthcoming article on the distribution of wealth in Australia, Professor Frank Stilwell and David Primrose, from Sydney University, review new NATSEM data that shows wealth inequality between the sexes is stark.

The gender-wealth gap persists irrespective of what work is done, or the industry of employment. Male managers and administrators have more wealth than their female counterparts. The same goes for professionals and tradespersons, retail and clerical employees — in fact every occupation that was reviewed.

An important contributor here is casual work. Stilwell and Primrose highlight how this affects the ability of men and women to build wealth. Industries with high numbers of casual workers deliver very low levels of wealth for both sexes. Examples are retail trades and accommodation, restaurants and cafes. Men in construction also have low levels of personal wealth, although the gap between men and women is smaller.

Within industries, the largest gap in personal wealth between men and women is in the cashed-up finance and insurance sector where many women work and the figures are noted above. But there are also big gaps in other female-dominated sectors. In health and community services the personal wealth of women is $68,000 versus $174,000 for men. In retail its $34,000 for women and $84,000 for men.

There are several other features of inequality highlighted by this report. Flows of income correlate strongly with stocks of wealth — so the more you earn, the more you assets you can acquire. As fewer women earn high incomes, this means they have a smaller chance to accrue wealth.

But even within low-income groups, gender wealth differences are entrenched. Men aged 25-64 who earn $50,000 or less annually have an average wealth of $67,800 to $92,000. There are 58% of men are in the category. By contrast there are 85% of women in this income category and the amount of wealth they own is even lower —  $45,500 to $61,700.

Overall the research confirms average levels of wealth for men and women remain highly unequal across the categories of age, income, occupation and industry. This means in percentage terms women have only 59% of the average wealth of men. And while the wealth of men and women working in high-status occupations is similar, there are a lot fewer women working in those occupations.

The cost, in terms of foregone wealth for women, is evident.

According to Stilwell and Primrose, this reflects deep levels of occupational segregration that are a characteristic of the Australian labour market. This is a theme that is taken up in earnest by academics Rae Cooper and Marian Baird, who argue that despite equal numbers of boys and girls completing higher education, women enter a labour market that does not allow them to combine careers and motherhood and so the earnings gap persists. Like Broderick, Cooper and Baird have highlighted the inter-relationship between home, work and community, noting that the boundaries are never fixed and what occurs in one, invariably affects the others.

These discrepancies translate into relative poverty for women during retirement, as well as increased reliance on government support and pensions. This is because public policy in areas such as retirement incomes is not designed with women’s lives in mind. Hence, the benefits of that system accrue to higher income-earning men — a fact highlighted by Broderick.

Addressing poor outcomes for women (literally) is something that has perplexed feminist policy makers for decades. Broderick is right to refer to the “shocking reality” of women accumulating poverty — not wealth — during their lives. In looking at this impact, the wealth analysis by Stilwell and Primrose provides a useful point in time measurement through which to chart progress in narrowing the wealth gap over coming years.

Jo-anne Schofield is the executive director of Catalyst Australia. The articles referred to above form part of a collection on inequality in Australia, Equality Speaks: Challenges for a fair society, which will be released by Catalyst in October.

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