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Why does economic progress of Australia’s women keep stalling?

There’s no doubt in my mind Australian women are progressing from an economic standpoint.

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The statistical gains are clear and opportunities are increasing. I’m feeling the vibe but are all women?

"The debate into the need for women’s economic progress is a massive reason why progress is slow.”

After working on the Financy Women’s Index, the biggest challenge I see is not so much that overall progress is slow, rather lingering debate still exists as to whether the economic progress of women is needed at all.

The timing is right for more progress - over three million women work full-time and about double that are in part-time jobs.

More women are studying courses that align with higher paying careers and corporate Australia is increasingly talking about the need to embrace gender diversity on boards and more broadly in the workplace.

“I’m thrilled to be involved with the Financy Women’s Index. Measuring the economic progress of women in Australia will hopefully highlight the economic issues women face and shape the policy debate about how these may be addressed”

-  Jo Masters, Senior Economist at ANZ and member of the FWX Advisory Committee

It’s true the latest Women’s Index found the economic progress of women actually improved in the last financial year. This is a good thing.

But it’s important we address the elephant in the room - the regressive debate into the need for women’s economic progress is a massive reason why progress is slow.

The Women’s lndex recovered by 0.3 percentage points to 111 in the three months to June.

But the data also showed progress slipped backwards at the start of the year.

This could be caused by less women occupying top ASX 20 board positions and a fall in female jobs growth and participation rate.

Sadly, this recent result remains 2 percentage points lower than the revised 113-point score achieved in the December quarter when the Index hit a record high.

It seems we are living in a country where - as many women and men could attest - we have a one step forward, two step back march on women’s economic progress.

Action

As Managing Director of fintech company OneVue, Connie McKeage, recently told me, “there’s too much gender debate and not enough action to address the economic disadvantages women face”.

“It concerns me that we are still not making the progress we need to be making,” she said. “Until we can have objective discussions and debates around real corporate issues without turning all debates in gender specific matters we’ll never make progress.”

McKeage says the financial services industry could be playing a much bigger role in supporting the economic progress of women.

“It’s time the industry stood up against allowing irrelevant topics from gaining traction, such as how much money a female director is spending on hair and make-up. This impacts all women and our financial wellbeing,” she said.

Philip Kewin, CEO of the Association of Financial Advisers (AFA) said the latest Index results indicate progress towards positive and meaningful cultural change in the financial wellbeing of women in Australia is happening slowly.

However he said it was “disappointing to see that, at 26.1 per cent, the financial and insurance services industry has the highest pay disparity of all industries”.

Indeed it’s not a good look when the industry is trying to appeal to more women. Particularly in light of the fact that in the coming decades women are forecast to inherit the bulk of intergenerational wealth.

Many people still try debate the very existence of the gender wage disparity. Yet in finance especially, the data and evidence and is unequivocal.

There are many reasons the national gender pay gap is 15.3 per cent, worse than it was back in 2006, and the superannuation gender gap is 30 per cent. Similarly, there are many reasons used to argue against this.

However none of these reasons should stop people from trying to encourage progress. There is so much compelling evidence showing the economic and social benefits of women playing a greater role in the paid economy and being supported to do so.

KPMG’s recent report, Ending workforce discrimination against women, showed halving the gender pay gap in Australia and reducing entrenched discrimination against women in the workforce could result in a $AU60 billion payoff to society in GDP contribution by 2038.

The report also uses economic modelling to show how taking focused steps to increase female job participation rates could deliver a $AU140 billion lift in living standards in 20 years’ time.

That’s more than two steps forward.

Bullet

So what needs to be done to further enhance the financial progress of women? There’s no silver bullet but there are realistic, attainable steps.

  • More affordable and accessible childcare support must be made available to parents to help women in particular return to paid work after kids. Superannuation also needs to be paid while on paternity leave, which more men should be supported by business to take.
  • Personal financial education must improve and broader career-awareness and development education for women of all ages should be made available, particularly for young women in the secondary school system.
  • Gender stereotypes which result in debate overkill on social media must be broken down. In the real world many women may still hope for Prince Charming to save the day while many men may feel stuck or defined by being the primary breadwinner.

As ANZ Senior Economist, Jo Masters observes, “it’s encouraging to see more women enrolling in tertiary studies than men and strong growth in female enrolments in courses that align with higher paying careers”.

“However there continues to be challenges around retaining women in the workforce with female participation rates continuing to dip in the 30 to 39 year old bracket”.

Bianca Hartge-Hazelamn is the founder of the Financy Women’s Index.

The Financy Women’s Index is available here.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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