Still not equal: the accumulation of poverty across women’s lives

The gender pay gap, unpaid domestic work, and broken attachment to the labour market can result in 'serious consequences' for women's economic security across the life course, writes Dr Dina Bowman. Dr Bowman leads research and policy on Work and Economic Security in the Brotherhood of St Laurence Research and Policy Centre. This article is based on one published in Building better lives together.

Women accumulate fewer assets than men across the course of their lives and are much more likely to be carers than men, which also affects their ability to earn and save – and this means they are more likely to be poor. Despite gains made in girls’ educational attainment and some recent equal pay successes, most women in Australia earn less than men. The Workplace Gender Equity Agency reports that the gender pay gap has stayed between 15% and 19% for the past two decades. The gender pay gap is the difference between women’s and men’s average weekly full-time equivalent earnings, expressed as a percentage of men’s earnings.

The gender pay gap has consequences that accumulate. The National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling estimates a woman with a Bachelor’s degree can expect lifetime earnings to be 20% less than for a similarly-qualified man ($2.3 million vs $2.8 million). The gap is worse for mothers. Mothers with a Bachelor’s degree can expect lifetime earnings of $1.8 million, compared with $3.3 million for similarly-qualified fathers – a difference of $1.5 million. This pay difference is often described as the care penalty.

In Australia women tend to be responsible for unpaid work –cleaning, cooking and caring. A recent OECD report estimated that women in Australia do on average 5.2 hours per day of unpaid work compared with 2.9 hours done by men.

Many families in Australia manage the tension between paid work and family responsibilities by the man working full-time and the woman working part-time. This short-term solution to managing work and family pressures has long-term consequences for women’s careers and their financial independence. This is because part-time work is often casual and lacks opportunities for advancement, and women tend to work in feminised occupations, such as childcare, which are low paid. Furthermore, when relationships cease, women are hard hit, with sole mothers among those who experience the highest level of financial hardship.

The consequences of a lack of gender equity at work and at home accumulate across the life course. Indeed, the Australian Human Rights Commission described the incremental impacts of women’s part time or casual work, intermittent workforce participation, and low levels of superannuation as the accumulation of poverty.  

Recent studies undertaken by researchers in the BSL’s Research and Policy Centre have focussed on the challenges facing women in Australia. For example, the recently completed Australian Research Council Linkage study on workforce vulnerabilities in midlife and beyond undertaken with researchers from the University of Melbourne, University of Canberra and Curtin University, in partnership with Jobs Australia, pointed out the particular challenges facing older women in the workforce. Our research showed women experience age discrimination differently from and at an earlier age than men, with serious consequences for their economic security in later life.

In a recent book No! Not equal my co-author Yvette Maker and I drew on the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s research over the past 30 years to examine why girls and women in Australia continue to experience inequality. Importantly, we made some suggestions about what is required to create a more equitable Australia, including the need for reliable up-to-date data, equitable income support and workplace policies, and a commitment  to structural and cultural change to enable real sharing of work and care across the life-course.