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Mar 8, 2011

Cox: a centenary of continuous struggle for women

Women still have a long way to go for equality and we need to get moving because there are serious issues that cannot be solved by economic modelling of independent self-interested masculinity equations.

If I wanted an example of the misuse of feminism, it arrived this morning in a headline from the Herald Sun: “Influential women in push for super boost”. The article shows clearly how feminism is easily co-opted by blokey economics and why inequality between men and women was increasing and also between women.

The article said: “A who’s who of Australia’s 40 highest profile women have urged the government to increase compulsory superannuation payments to 12 per cent. In an open letter today, the women — from business, academia, the arts and public life — have used the eve of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day tomorrow to push for the higher funding.”

Superannuation is a good template for explaining why gender inequality is stalling and sometimes going backwards. The equal pay cases of ’70s closed the obvious gaps between men’s and women’s pay but failed to tackle the lower pay rates for feminised occupations or the biases in assumptions of what women’s work was worth. So we still have a 17% pay gap in average hourly rates. Add to that the likelihood that women will take time out and work fewer hours to cope with the major share of unpaid care, it is obvious that they will earn less over a life time than men.

So the question is why did the unions and ALP government design a retirement income system based on earnings and even more puzzling, why base it on tax concessions that massively benefit higher income earners. The current system substantially reduces the tax obligations of top income tax bracket payers but overtaxes those with low or no incomes, who are mostly female. So superannuation increases the gaps between higher and lower income earners in retirement, and access to pensions at the bottom end does not compensate for this. It doesn’t even save the government money because it costs a lot in income foregone.

So how did this happen? The superannuation scheme is a weird collaboration between the union movement and the finance industry, which benefits both their leaderships very substantially. It is the classic product of Paul Keating’s love affair with ’80s economistic policy making: a shift from public pooling for pensions to neoliberal market self provision and risk taking.

It was sold as relieving the taxpayer from having to pay for the needs in an ageing population, but failed to really acknowledge the level of public support in tax foregone. So now the costs of the super tax concessions just about match the costs of the aged pension, with the difference that the super concessions go mainly to the most wealthy. It will costs taxpayers another $8 billion on top of $26 billion to fund the 3% rise.

So why are 40 prominent women pushing for increasing retirement inequities, which raising the compulsory contribution to 12% will do? Their involvement further illustrates the illusion we had that having more women in top jobs would put our changes on the agenda.

How many of the 40 read what Ken Henry’s report said when it recommended against the rise because of its effect on lower income earners, in particular women? Why did they not question whether this rise would be useful to the bulk of women on lower incomes, whose plight they use to support the change? Like many others, I suspect they didn’t ask the questions because it’s too complex and the changes will benefit them?

This particular policy response illustrates the point I want to make on this centenary celebration, why we are not moving on and in fact sometimes going backwards. The past 20 or so years have seen few major changes that matched those in the earlier years. Then, we made the obvious changes that seriously irked women in the mid-century years in which we grew up. We have removed the laws that formally restricted our access to certain jobs, paid work, promotion or to other goods and services.

This means that overt s-x discrimination is now neither obvious nor legally acceptable. We changed how some issues were once defined or ignored: violence in families is no longer private; there are funded (and controlled) women’s services; we have more child care but it’s now commercialised and still too expensive.

Schools and universities have expanded their numbers of female students, so we now have majorities in many professional areas and added women to the histories of what men did. And there are many more women in high positions and even in the top positions.

There are, however, many questions on where we are now and are going. Where has all that education got us? There are relatively few women in high positions in the media, arts, law and medicine despite being majorities of graduates. The pay gap is increasing and the cultures of most workplaces remain focused on male-style long hours and unbalanced commitments

A key demand of Australia’s ’70s women’s movement somehow got lost: we wanted to change the inequalities of gender, not just to reshuffle numbers. We wanted the appropriate valuing of those activities that were primarily the responsibility of women, and still are predominantly. We didn’t define equality of women in male-defined terms.

This difference is illustrated by the 40 top women’s call for the expansion of a deeply sexist and inequitable retirement system. What has the women’s movement gained by having them there?  Where are the proposals for non-gendered retirement system that would recognise the needs and entitlements of  carers and others who had no access to high-paid work?  It’s not the minimum age pension.

We still have a long way to go, and we need to get moving because there are serious issues facing us as a society that cannot be solved by economic modelling of independent self-interested masculinity equations. I want to use feminist frameworks, together with what I’ve learnt in indigenous policy, to create a broad coalition of groups who want to make better societies. We need to put social collectivity back on the agenda, rather than competition, with economics reduced to funding and recognise feminist options have a lot to offer.

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71 thoughts on “Cox: a centenary of continuous struggle for women

  1. SusieQ

    Interesting article.
    I’m not sure who those prominent 40 women are, but I’m guessing they won’t have to worry too much about how to fund their retirements! Meanwhile, the rest of us wage slaves are faced with working full time til we’re in our mid 60’s or longer due to inadequate super and/or changes to the pension scheme.
    While men still run the show and (generally speaking only) seem reluctant to give up their precious careers to stay at home and look after their children, but still expecting us to do so, change in all areas will be slow in coming.

  2. Captain Planet

    Great analysis, Eva, thank you. A very though provoking point about the gender inequalities of the superannuation system. How intriguing that the Henry report recommended against increases in compulsory superannuation on this basis, and how eye opening that the superannuation tax concessions to high income earners now cost the Australian taxpayer more than funding the old age pension.

    I would suggest that the 40 prominent women are arguing for increases to superannuation, demonstrates that unfortunately women can be every bit as selfish as men. Especially successful businesswomen, who I doubt anyone would dispute, must be even more ruthless and self centred than their male counterparts, to succeed.

    Your commentary about societal undervaluing of feminised work are certainly more balanced and reasonable than some commentary I have seen. Unfortunately such things are very difficult to change through legislation. There is also the fact of life choices to be considered: Many women are willing to work part time or take a break from pursuing their careers, and of course these have impacts on their remuneration, when the typical company wants (and rewards) a fully dedicated full time careerist. Again, this is a failing of the capitalist system, rather than the regulatory regime. You can campaign to change laws, it is much harder to change ingrained belief systems, and it seems nigh on impossible to change the “more for me” mentality of the capitalist economic structure.

    None of this manages to address fairly, however, the points you have raised about superannuation inequity. Life choices and / or value of feminised work aside, It is entirely unreasonable that women are disadvantaged in retirement by this system. Of course many married women can and will rely on their husband’s superannuation entitlements, and many will have this as their primary plan for their retirement (not unreasonably, as marriage is theoretically at least, a partnership for life). Obviously there are huge implications of servility and dependance on a masculine benefactor here which make this an unacceptable model for many women. It does, however, explain part of the lack of impetus from which this issue appears to suffer. The more “I will rely on my husband’s super” is an acceptable solution for many women, the less “I demand that this inequality be addressed” is going to be heard.

    Unfortunately we are really up against the prevailing economic paradigm here. The current financial system dictates that those who are able to earn more, somehow DESERVE more: Compulsory superannuation contributions in order to remove the need for an old age pension, only extends this disgusting exploitative concept into retirement.

  3. lindsayb

    It used to be that most of our corporations were run by a boys club. Now, a few women are part of what is now a rich people’s club, and nothing has changed for the rest of us, except that this small cabal is taking an ever-increasing share of our collective resources for themselves, while the rest of us struggle over an ever-decreasing share of the pie.
    There is no question that gender equality has a long way to go, but it is completely dwarfed by the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and fighting to get a few more rich women into well paid board and CEO jobs is not going to help the 99% of women and 98% of men who are having an increasingly difficult time making ends meet. And while the LibLab party is the subservient lapdog of the ruling elite, it is going to take more than an election to bring about meaningful reform.

  4. Nya

    Thanks to Eva for an insightful and concise statement of what women have and have not achieved since the seventies. In comparison with European society, and to some extent the UK, (and I have lived in both places), we are not doing as well in terms of women in the corporate world, and also the status of women in society.

    I believe one of the reasons that Australian women have failed to capitalise on gender equity lies within our national borders. Whereas in Europe and the UK women’s approach to problem solving has been upgraded in value, (such as networking, multi-threading, and the ability to consult experts effectively), I believe that overall only grudging respect has been paid to these skills in this country.

    I do wonder whether this last mining boom may not bear some responsibility for the domination of ‘blokedom’ values in government and the workplace. I do think that it is time for new regulation. The affirmative action of the eighties relied on ‘naming and shaming’ companies to achieve compliance. Clearly this did not really work as the proportion of women in senior management has not risen over the past ten years. And yet the clustering of women in the ‘caring and sharing’ occupations is, in part, historical. In the ICT industry, many women disappeared in the late nineties. This was not a lack of technical ability, merely a reflection on the use of language and culture to marginalise women’s technical contributions.

    Superannuation does not suit women who enter and leave the workplace because of primary non-paid responsibilities for children and the aged. Legislation has not helped a trail of modest contributions that in many cases cannot be consolidated, for example moving between the public and the private sector. We are regulated from the past, where employment was life tenure. This no longer suits either men or women in a two speed economy where most industries have been sacrificed on the altar of a mining boom that has created an alarming tonnage of greenhouse gas emissions. (The Chinese are actively moving away as fast as they can from a dependency on Australian resources, and are investing massively in renewable energy).

    I believe that historical resistance to women prospering in technical and scientific fields is still alive and kicking. Quotas for ensuring women’s equal representation and success in all professions is required, to ensure that careers match ability. Same old problem, and resistance from entrenched interests has ensured that nothing has changed in the past twenty years.

    There has to be a path to recognise women’s successes, for successful professional women to be directors, without having to know someone in the boys club. But then there has to be a path for successful men to serve on boards without knowing someone in the boys club.

    Are we perhaps speaking here of a basic Australian nepotism that is holding the country back to a time where the rest of the western world no longer lives (except perhaps Japan)?

  5. Liz45

    Thank you Eva for another thought provoking article. Someone mentioned women perhaps not bothering or counting on their super as they have their husband’s/partner’s super to look forward to. This may not be so! As a temporary employee with the NSW Govt, as a Teachers Aide(we were classified as temporary – employed from day 1 of the term until the last day, as it was cheaper for them?) we didn’t have an opportunity for super until the mid to late 70’s. I left my then husband due to DV in early ’83 and that was it – no super! Women also did not fare well out of divorce in those days – a small percentage of his super, and that was my lot – no financial recognition of being a wife, worker, mother and co-provider. If women rely on men, they’ll end up like the over 55/60’s women now – recognised by Govt investigation as the poorest in the community.

    When our society rethinks its attitudes to all people; male, female, indigenous etc and puts them before profits and misogynist values, we won’t go forward very much at all. We need a Bill of Rights to start with; that would ‘set the scene’ for a change in thinking. Women are still patronised and used for their ‘non-monetary gain’ skills such as child bearing/raising and caring for parents etc, and it’s usually the men who benefit from that who make the rules – politicians, judges on the industrial benches etc. We’re still being forced to live under the ‘Damned whores and God’s police’ syndrome Anne Summers refers to in her book of that name.

    We’ll also never be recognised as equal until men stop committing acts of violence against us and our kids. The two don’t go together – unless there’s a definite change in too many men’s attitudes; and until they don’t see women’s equality as a threat, then we might go forward all the time – instead of one step forward, two steps back as Eva correctly states.

    I’m disappointed that those 40 women didn’t use the equal pay case as their ‘pet subject’ on this IWD! This will benefit those underpaid and overworked women in the community sector who would then also be able to at least have a choice about a positive increase in their superannuation for a more prosperous future as senior women – this would also acknowledge the value of their role in our community – supporting women and kids who are living in oppressed environments to name just a small component of their work!

  6. Laura

    OMG – what a load of dribble. You can not have your cake and eat it too – end of story. You either work full time and be self reliant or work part time and have reduced income. That is it – you choose.

    Super is based on income, the more education you have and more driven you are the more income you get. Having career breaks may be ok in your dream world but the real world likes continuity of staff and tenure and that is just calling it the way it is.

    You can’t have it all and the sooner you grow up and accept the way the world is the better off everyone will be. Now I have to go, the stock market closes in 15 minutes and I need to review my investments. Retirement for some is looking good, real good.

  7. Lorry

    So what do you propose is the solution EVA, silence – I thought so.

    The system is based on what you earn, you earn more then you accumulate more super – seems reasonable to me. Or could it be that you want to be “taken care of” by your partner or father thereby abrogating one’s responsibility for financial independence further?

    Laura is correct, you can not have your cake and eat it to.

  8. klewso

    How are women ever going to get a fair go in this country? Look at the “acceptable”, “valid” “established” double standards!
    Gillard breaks a promise and look at what happens? Howard broke how many (“never mind” “Iraq” and “children overboard”) and Abbott is a self-confessed prevaricator who can’t be trusted with anything “unscripted” (admittedly he said that!).
    Then again she and the party doesn’t have “Poppa ‘doch’s” “Limited News” writing “Please Excuse” notes for her and the party – making all those excuses, apologies, and doing their laundry, establishing these “acceptable” conflicted standards – that apparently can’t be applied to “others”?

  9. billie

    thanks for your article Eva. It’s a pity people don’t recognise just unfair the current super system is in providing high income earners a tax free saving environment where you can stash millions to provide for your old age. The other discussion the Australian government needs to have is “How much should an aged pension or superannuation pension provide tax free?”, $40,000 per person per annum or $200,000 per person per annum?

  10. Liz45

    @LAURA – Well, what a surprise! It’s selfish women like you who make it so much harder for the rest of us. If you have kids, I suppose they go or went to school? Did you know that two teachers, one male one female, after attending Teachers College at the same time; first school out, he got more money than she did! I suppose that was OK with you. That was taking place up until the 1980’s!

    Women in the NSW public service, as teachers or working in offices etc, couldn’t will their super to their husband/partner/kids if they died – single men couldn’t either – only MARRIED MEN could! I suppose that’s OK by you too? So, all the money they paid in died with them! It changed, via the hard work of women like Eva and others. Women like you come along, and attack other women with the hard fought positives that you take for granted – probably without any work or sacrifice on your part – you just gobbled up the advantages!

    The women who work in the community as child care workers or working in womens’ health centres are paid less than their counterparts employed by the Govt – state or federal? That OK too? Women have been behind due to the discrimination in pay and conditions, and they still are. Those teachers and others received justice after a deliberate and protracted industrial campaign. You may not realise it, but the very fact you can have investments or buy property in your own name if married came about as a result of women before you doing the ‘hard yards’! I took on David Jones in 1975 and won – I like to think that I helped to make it easier for the next woman – perhaps, you!

    Who knows, in x number of years time, you may end up in a nursing home or hospital bed looked after by the very women you are denigrating at this time! But then, you’ve maintained your self centred and selfish point of view over many months now! It’s probably too much to ask, that your so-called intelligent persona may just decide, that a bit of education and self analysis might be a good idea! And the ‘I’m alright Jill, stuff you’ is a pretty selfish place to be!

    @KLEWSO – If you go to the AWU?(just put John Howard lies into search engine) website, you can see the list of Howard’s broken promises – 35 and counting it says!
    One that is topical is over taxes – LIE #11. Howard pledged “no new taxes, no increase in existing taxes for the life of the next parliament”(1 February 1996 – 7.30 Report/Kerry O’brien).
    The truth – “By July 2004, John Howard’s Government had introduced legislation for over 160 new taxes or increases in taxes and charges since 1996”!
    (Office of the Clerk of the Senate).
    In 8 years – not bad – 20 per year?

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