It’s been just over a year since Anne-Marie Slaughter penned her piece Why Women Still Can’t Have it All for The Atlantic, with everyone from Hillary Clinton to Oprah Winfrey and locally Julie Bishop having something to say on whether or not they agree.
Frequently, high-profile women have said the notion of ‘having it all’ comes down to choice. Women have plenty of choices, said Bishop, but making one choice may rule out another. And you can have it all, just not all at the same time, said Oprah Winfrey. As for Clinton, well she thought we should quit complaining about it: “I can’t stand the kind of paralysis that some people fall into because they’re not happy with the choices they’ve made,” she said.
But for the good majority of Australian women there’s one thing you’re almost certain to not have: accumulated superannuation savings on par with men – no matter what you choose throughout your life and when you decide to have it.
A new policy paper released by the Australia Institute today outlines the social, economic and cultural factors that leave women worse off in retirement than men, no matter what individual choices they make. There are a range of factors to blame – everything from career breaks, to unpaid work, caring responsibilities and flexible work – all part of an ‘accumulated poverty’ that sees women end up with just over half of the superannuation savings of men, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and just 37% of Australia’s total super account balances, according to a 2012 Suncorp-ASFA Super Attitudes Survey.
But as report author and sociologist Prue Cameron told me today, it’s that persistent 17.5% gender pay gap between men and women working fulltime that really stings – and demonstrates that no matter how you structure your working life or whether you have children or not, you’re destined for superannuation inequality at some point.
And Cameron doesn’t believe factors such as having children should be considered a ‘choice’ or reason for women to end up financially disadvantaged later in retirement.
“I think it’s very interesting that the debate is still about women’s choices as though having a child is a matter of individual choice – as if caring for those children is a woman’s choice between working and having an income, and a satisfactory retirement income,” she says.
“If everybody decided, ‘No I’m not doing that’, well where would we be? The whole notion of choice as it always has done takes the attention away from the social, structural, and cultural barriers women face.”
Cameron found Bishop’s comments, made earlier this year, as well as comments by then prime minister Julia Gillard during a Press Club speech on the need to ‘respect women’s choices’ particularly frustrating. They provided the inspiration for titling the policy paper, What’s choice got to do with it?
To highlight why a gender superannuation gap occurs no matter what a woman’s choices, Cameron offers four hypothetical examples in her paper of women making different ‘choices’ regarding occupations, part time work and having children. The four women all end up with somewhere between 44 and 87.6% of the accumulated earnings of their male counterparts.
So what can help the gender super gap? Cameron believes while cultural and social changes are required to help with the 17.5% pay gap, more immediate structural changes to the current superannuation system should be considered. She says the current system merely exacerbates women’s financial disadvantage in retirement: given no super contributions are made on parental leave, the value of unpaid work is ignored, and men are more likely to be able to take advantage of superannuation tax benefits.
While Cameron isn’t confident of immediate changes occurring, she hopes to keep the issue high on the agenda.
“I think the most important thing we can do is to get women outraged about this,” she says. “There has been an increase in the discussion of the pay gap and the idea of choice and superannuation. We need to keep talking about it and hopefully outrage younger women who have probably grown up thinking it’s been sorted.”