If Australia’s serious about achieving gender equality “we need some of that old 70s fervour back”, according to political economist and human rights activist Marilyn Waring.
Speaking at Breakthrough 2018: Ideas to Action, an event hosted by the Victorian Women’s Trust on Wednesday, Waring said women and men across the country need to be more militant in a “smart-minded way”.
Together with the chief economist of The Australian Institute Richard Denniss, and Victorian Women’s Trust executive director Mary Crooks AO, Waring discussed some of the greatest threats to women’s economic security today and the courage it will take to enact change.
Pointing to Deborah Jane Wardley, Waring said it took sheer defiance against an industry heavyweight, use of the Equal Opportunity Act and five hearings before Lawrie won the landmark sex discrimination case to become Australia’s first female pilot.
“Over that case, a lot of women boycotted that airline [Ansett Airlines],” Waring said, which put a heavy toll on its profit margins.
Denniss believes that Australia’s childcare, health care, aged care and education systems are broken – and the public must unite to fix them.
But as Crooks added: “Your solutions will only be as good as your analysis of the problem [and] if you can’t see the problem, you can’t fix it”.
So let’s start with two big lies we need to get real about.
Lie 1: Unpaid work is just cooking and cleaning – it has no economic value
Waring, who starred in the documentary Who’s Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex Lies and Global Economics, believes there’s great irony in putting a dollar value on “unpaid work” when international rules like gross domestic product and national accounts gravely undervalue the significance, impact and opportunity that this work provides to society.
“I’ve changed my mind about a number of things since writing Counting for Nothing about 27 years ago,” said Waring.
In an attempt to give “authority” to the argument that unpaid domestic work – largely undertaken by women across the globe – is economically significant, Waring sought to estimate its monetary value.
“[But I] realised that by inviting estimations of unpaid work, I was inviting us to give market values [according] to a system that said ammunition and wars are valuable, everything that devastated our seas and our air are valuable … I now don’t think that at all.”
In addition to this, Waring believes cooking, cleaning and repairs are “the easy bits” of unpaid work, which really extends to admin, management, ancillary purchases plus “the waiting”, “never sleeping” and your own health deteriorating.
To truly understand the deeper value and economic importance of unpaid work, Waring said Australia should start collecting this data again and use it to influence national policy.
“In the 1990s, there was a real explosion in the so-called developed world of ‘time use’ surveys.”
She added that these played a “phenomenal” role in identifying that women “overwhelmingly perform work for a longer time than men” and that “they are the single largest sector of any nation’s economy”.
“Australia has fallen over in the collection of time-use data … one of the things we have to fight for really hard is for that series to be reintroduced, it has to be ongoing, it has to be nationwide and it has to be resourced.”
In doing this, Denniss added that it’s important to not get carried with numbers that “don’t mean anything” but to use this data to demystify and reassess existing economic power structures and rules.
“When you start putting dollar value on a polar bear as a species or the time people spend caring for kids, you strip away what we’re actually talking about.”
Both Denniss and Waring believe that a greater understanding of such unpaid work can lead to more sensible economic systems that not only enable women to remain in the workforce but thrive.
If Sweden and Germany can roll out “very generous” parental leave schemes that oblige both mothers and fathers to take time off, and New Zealand can establish universal basic income for its senior population to age with dignity, Waring challenges Australia to reflect on bigger ideas too.
“[These are] just other rich countries making better decisions than we have,” Denniss says.
Lie 2: Superannuation is universal
Australia’s superannuation industry systemically rips off women, said Denniss.
According to a March 2017 report by the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia (ASFA), the “Australian retirement savings pool” is one of the largest in the world, amounting to more than $2 trillion or “around 130 per cent of GDP”.
The ASFA also revealed that of the 14 million odd Australians who have superannuation accounts, women fall behind their male peers from the age of 15 through to retirement.
In the table below showing mean superannuation balances by sex and age, it’s clear that by the time women hit 60 to 64, their male peers are ahead by more than $100,000.
IMAGE: Superannuation Statistics 2017 (December 2017) by ASFA
“This industry only survives public scrutiny because people are [afraid] to question it,” said Denniss.
Australia’s “universal” superannuation developed in the 1980s, when it became compulsory for employers to make contributions to specific industry funds.
The problem, said Denniss, is that the system was created before trends in flexible working along with more women entering the workforce, exploded.
“[Today] it forces anyone who works to put 9% of their income into this financial product … the idea is if we all put money inside, because of the magic of compound interest … you will retire with a lot,” he says.
“If I earn $10,000 in my part-time job, I put in $900. If you earn $100,000, you put in $9,000.
“This is how we’re both going to fund our retirement – it’s not universal.
“People who don’t do any [paid] work, put in zero.”
With the national gender pay gap averaging above 15%, Denniss said superannuation magnifies inequality between men and women even further.
Since Australia introduced the Equal Pay Act in 1972, Waring said it has continued to systematically undermine these rights to the point that legal frameworks like the Fair Work Act don’t even mention “equal pay”.
“You have no right to pay equity in Australia, I’ve read myself blue in the face.”
With the words “equal pay act” literally disappearing from legislation after the 1970s, Waring called on brave women from nurses through to banking professionals – “where there is a 33% difference in pay rate” – to band together and file a “little complaint to the Fair Work Commission” about unequal pay.
“Try and partner with a human rights commission [and] ask them if they can ask the High Court whether or not pay equity exists,” she said.
Waring believes there’s a possibility for Australian women today to bring about legislative change through a class action lawsuit before the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) committee.
Any Australian citizen who has exhausted all domestic legal remedies can access CEDAW to trigger an international human rights obligation, she said.
“[Canada, Australia and New Zealand] we’re generally mortified when this sort of thing happens [and] we very quickly change the legislation.”