Women’s Policy Action Tank: Bold Leadership Needed for Transformational Change

Scorecard on Women and Policy provided by Yvonne Lay, Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand

Topic: Federal Women’s Policy Announcements

Neither party provides, nor even alludes to, any transformational change capable of achieving gender equality. This analysis of recent women’s policy statements by Yvonne Lay reveals a failure by both parties to address the deep-rooted social structures that reinforce our male-defined society.

The linkage between the prevention of violence against women and gender equality has resulted in both issues being highlighted on the national and international policy agendas. Violence against women and girls is physically, emotionally, psychologically and financially harmful to them, and is costly to victims, their families and their communities.[i] Violence against women also has negative financial implications for workplaces and society more broadly.

Do commitments go far enough?

In response to this understanding, both the Federal Coalition and Opposition parties released their ‘women’s policy’ initiatives earlier this month – the Australian Labor Party (ALP) via their ‘Australian Women. Labor’s Positive Policies’ document, and the Coalition by way of a media release. Both major parties are seemingly positioning themselves to be the party that will protect and advance women’s rights, and achieve gender equality more broadly. Indeed, to advance gender equality and the human rights of all people, gender must be a central consideration in all major Federal government policy frameworks. To be gender blind is to perpetuate and reinforce the existing structures that continue to devalue and disadvantage women and girls.

At first glance, the ALP’s policy is comprehensive and covers areas such as government leadership, domestic and family violence, early childhood education and care, fairer superannuation for women, and international aid programs. The Coalition’s media release also covers the same initiatives as the ALP albeit in less detail.  Both the Coalition and the ALP are committed to eliminating violence against women and achieving gender equality, and rightly so. There is unfortunately little to distinguish the way in which each major party will do this. Neither party provides, nor even alludes to, anything transformational to actually achieve gender equality - both parties fail to address or highlight the deep-rooted social structures that reinforce our male-defined society.

Gender Equality test finds both major parties wanting

Positively, both major political parties have committed to supporting Australian women, recognising if nothing else that currently women and girls are generally worse off than men and boys. Both the ALP and Coalition have articulated how they, if elected on July 2nd, will boost women’s workforce participation, support women with young children who require child care, and invest in critical domestic and family violence services for women and children experiencing and/or escaping family violence. All of these measures are absolutely essential and critical on the path to advancing women’s rights, women’s empowerment, and women’s safety.

On the ‘Gender Equality Continuum’, both major parties are, unfortunately gender blind – that is, they are fundamentally ignoring the set of economic, social, and political roles, rights, entitlements, responsibilities, and obligations associated with being female and male, and ignoring the power dynamics between and among men and women, boys and girls.

As an example, regarding retirement and superannuation the Coalition has said:  

‘we know women, on average, retire with 35 per cent less superannuation despite having a higher life expectancy. That is why our comprehensive package of reforms will help women accumulate more superannuation and be more financially secure in retirement’.

The ALP, similarly, recognise and acknowledge that there is a ‘gender retirement superannuation gap of 46.6 per cent’ with women faring significantly worse than men in retirement. The ALP goes on to say it will:

amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to ensure companies are able to make higher superannuation payments for their female employees when they wish to do so…[and] ask the Australian Human Rights Commission to develop guidelines and advice for any organisation contemplating providing additional superannuation for women’.

Deeper, more systemic change needed

While these are welcomed reforms, the Senate Economics Reference Committee Report into Women’s Income Security in Retirement (released four days beforehand) made it clear that deeper, more systemic change is needed to truly enable women’s economic security in retirement.

As explained by the National Foundation of Australian Women in their gendered analysis of the budget:

the budget contains a number of measures designed to curb the excessive accumulation of income in concessionally taxed superannuation accounts. These measures are gender blind, but are more likely to limit the benefits to men than women as men currently have higher superannuation balances and make larger voluntary contributions to superannuation than women’.

The measures outlined in both the ALP and Coalition’s policies do very little to address and transform the retirement income system as a whole. As the Senate Report expressed, the system ‘structurally favours higher income earners who work full-time, without breaks, for the entirety of their working life. The women (and men) who do not fit this pattern of work face a significant handicap when saving for their retirement’.  Neither the Coalition nor the ALP come close to acknowledging this fact, and where there is no acknowledgement how can there be any sort of change, much less transformation?

To increase women’s superannuation balances, and ensure dignity and economic security in retirement in the future, changes are required to current structures and systems in the way women work and live. Both parties have expressed how they will increase women’s workforce participation, however this is inherently tied to women’s ability (for those who have children) to access affordable and quality childcare. If women with children are unable to access affordable childcare, it is unlikely they will be able to participate in the paid workforce as much as they would want to. Further to this, neither the ALP nor the Coalition have acknowledged, let alone attempted to challenge, the issue of the gendered nature of care. This is a key structure that requires transformation if we are to achieve gender equality.

Similarly, increasing women’s workforce participation is tied to their ability to secure affordable and safe housing. Women who rely on income support, who are on low incomes and/or who are working part time, can be susceptible to difficulties in securing and maintaining affordable and safe housing. Given that women are more likely to be engaged in part-time and/or casual employment, and are generally the primary care-givers to children and other family members, the lack of housing security can make women significantly more vulnerable. Consequently, this directly impacts on women’s economic security in retirement. Despite this, both parties have remained relatively silent on the growing issue of housing unaffordability in Australia.

Achieving gender equality is more than merely creating ‘separate’ women’s programs or projects within existing frameworks and structures. Fundamentally, it ‘entails a re-structuring [of] society so that it is no longer male-defined…[it] requires a redistribution of power and resources…dismantling of the private-public divide, and a reconstruction of the public world’.[ii] Whilst the ‘commitment’ of both parties to women is commendable, neither party demonstrates real leadership, shying away from the need to tackle, dismantle and transform the existing structures and systems that continue to reinforce women’s disadvantage.

This analysis is a contribution to the Scorecard on Women and Policy project, initiated by the Women's Policy Action Tank.  We invite policy specialists in all areas to provide analysis of public policy using a gender lens:  womenspolicy@goodshep.org.au  Follow us on Twitter: @PolicyforWomen

[i] See Price Waterhouse Coopers, 2015, A high price to pay: the economic case for preventing violence against women, Melbourne: Price Waterhouse Coopers, Our Watch, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation; Australian Council of Social Services, 2012, Poverty in Australia, Paper 194, Strawberry Hills: Australian Council of Social Services; VicHealth, 2004, The health costs of violence: Measuring the burden of disease caused by intimate partner violence, Melbourne: Victorian Health Promotion Foundation.

[ii] Sandra Fredman, ‘Beyond the dichotomy of formal and substantive equality: towards a new definition of equal rights’ in Ineke Boerefijin et al (eds), 2003, Temporary special measures: accelerating de facto equality of women under Article 4(1) of the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women.