Providing better pathways for vulnerable women: a gendered analysis of welfare reform

The McClure interim report raises many questions about the structure and adequacy of Australia’s welfare system. It highlights that single parents, carers and people with disability have lower levels of employment than others in the community, and that the income support and welfare systems need to reflect the needs and challenges of these groups.

What is not explicit is the gendered nature of this problem. Dr Rhonda Cumberland, CEO of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, reflects that by ignoring gender, the review neglects some of the preventable costs that can be reduced in the Australian welfare system.


The McClure Interim Report highlights many issues that should be of concern to the Australian economy and society. Particularly, it highlights that single parents, carers, and people with disability have low levels of workforce participation compared to other Australians, and compared with other countries in the OECD.[1] It also highlights that the system is difficult to navigate, and that many people go without because of the inadequacy of payments or through not accessing their full entitlements.

The state has a role in alleviating poverty and managing the social risks associated with the free market. It is necessary to address economic inequity by redistributing wealth as evidence supports that more equal societies have higher levels of wellbeing and are more productive. The income support and welfare system needs to be designed with these goals in mind in addition to being a safety net to catch those who are most in need, and we are heartened by the holistic nature of the review.

There are many positive benefits of participation in paid work, and everyone should have an equal opportunity to access these. Having parents in employment improves outcomes for children, reduces the likelihood of financial stress on families, and positively impacts on self-esteem and social relationships. Young people’s life chances dramatically improve with each level of education completed. It also contributes to the productivity of the economy as a whole.

Why, then, are there so many people that are excluded from a system that has so many benefits? Why, specifically, are so many of these issues gendered? Further, why is the gendered nature of  disadvantage not addressed in the review?

Gender and welfare reform

Welfare reform should be based on a gender analysis when gender is known to be relevant to the increasing costs of welfare in Australia. Without a good understanding of how gender contributes to the high costs of welfare, we are not confident that the most preventable costs can be reduced.

While there are changing expectations in the wider community about women’s workforce participation[2], this has not been met with a corresponding reduction in the societal expectations and challenges that are placed on women.  For example: the gendered nature of care, experiences of family violence, lower levels of pay and hence retirement savings are all systemic issues that impact on women’s economic participation.

The facts are that:

  • 87% of one-parent families are headed by women.[3]
  • 71% of primary carers for people with disability are women.[4]
  • As at November 2012, the gender pay gap was 17.6 per cent.[5]
  • In 2009-10, a woman’s average superannuation payout was $112,600. However, for a man, it was $198,000. This trajectory starts from a young age and continues until retirement.[6]

The best mutual obligations schemes in the world cannot fix these deeply entrenched problems.

The road to reform

Reform to Australian welfare must challenge, encourage and provide incentives for women to fully participate in society.  It needs to be structured in a way that recognises the gendered nature of disadvantage and the broader social and structural issues that need addressing to enable participation.

A woman might be committed to a contract with government that guides her back to school or work. This positive change can disappear in an instant with a threat to her life or her child's safety. To appropriately support these women, we need to look beyond the individual and understand the other aspects of her life that are integral to her economic wellbeing: the safety of her children, the capacity to balance work and care, fair pay, and real jobs with real career pathways. We must understand the societal and community reasons why women are excluded from the workforce.

Where welfare substitutes for work, we must all take action to support change. Where welfare substitutes for justice, we must all advocate for the rights of victims and survivors. Right now our welfare system doesn't know the difference.


[1] Department of Social Service (DSS) (2014) A New System for Better Employment and Social Outcomes - Interim Report of the Reference Group on Welfare Reform to the Minister for Social Services, Australian Government, Canberra

[2] Ibid.

[3] Australian Bureau of Statistics, One Parent Families, from,$File/41020_One-parent%20families_2007.pdf


[5] Workplace Gender Equity Agency, Gender Pay Gap Statistics,

[6] ABS (2013), Cat 4125.0 Gender Indicators, Australia, August 2013, accessed via on 31/10/13