Less money, less opportunity: Young women in modern Australia | Women's Agenda

Less money, less opportunity: Young women in modern Australia

I worked a mix of casual jobs through school and university, and I benefitted extensively from penalty rates.

When you’re on an hourly wage of something that sits somewhere in the single digits, as I was back then, the penalty rates made the work worthwhile. It gave me a source of income while studying, some valuable work experience, as well as an opportunity to connect with new people, places and ideas. The penalty rates also allowed those who worked fulltime in such positions to take a break over the weekend, and gave an excellent incentive to employers to hire inexperienced and less qualified workers (like I was back then) to help fill in the gaps.

I’m thankful to have had those opportunities. I now wonder if young women will have fewer such opportunities given the Fair Work Commission’s decision to cut penalty rates.

Indeed, this latest move adds to a whole bunch of issues affecting the careers, earning capacity and general wellbeing of young women.

It’s not just penalty rates that have been cut, it’s also a working environment that is increasingly expecting more from young people – all the while setting women up for a lifetime of earning less than their male counterparts, and having fewer opportunities to pursue leadership positions.

Right now large employers are expecting significantly more experience from their new starters. They want to see unpaid internships completed, years of work experience on the resume, as well as an active interest and involvement in as many extra-curricular activities as possible.

I still remember missing out on a junior, graduate style position at the age of 21 because I lacked “corporate experience”. I’d been working since the age of 14. I had been told I was an excellent fit and that I had great skills. But I had apparently not spent enough time sitting in an airconditioned CBD high rise, wearing heels and a suit.

Now I see those same employers wanting even more. I hear of young women saving up enough cash – working those odd hours and receiving penalty rates in the process – just so they can go and complete a stint of unpaid work somewhere else. Internships are getting longer, less organised and more exploitative. It always horrifies me to see job adverts appearing online demanding absolute excellence from potential candidates, who will in turn be paid little or next to nothing.

And plenty of young women are willing to participate in a system that’s seriously unfair on them. They do it, as I know I did to an extent – putting up with sexual harassment and being underpaid – because they have big ambitions and believe it’s the only way to get a foot in the door. It’s confusing. It’s exhausting, and it no doubt affects the confidence levels and wellbeing of those who feel it’s their only option.

Then once you have that foot in the door, new mountains that require climbing emerge. Pay gaps, unconscious bias, and possibly later penalties that come with becoming a mother.

Meanwhile outside of work? There’s the fact that no matter how many more promotions come up or how much added income you can make in bonuses or something else, saving for a deposit to buy a home in Sydney or Melbourne is now almost impossible – unless you have some kind of assistance from parents.

And in policy, young people are fast becoming easy targets. Not because they’re uninterested and don’t speak up, but rather because they’re largely powerless. From the latest omnibus bill cutting welfare to those in their early twenties to budget cuts affecting students. It’s unfair for both genders, but it’s unfair for women particularly – who’ll face that gender pay gap and may only be a couple of years away from needing to take unpaid leave and other breaks in order to support young children.

When it comes to women in leadership we like to believe, optimistically, in the ‘pipeline of women’ that will ultimately solve the problem in the future. The pipeline of talented women absolutely exists, but I worry now about what’s happening to such women before they even get started.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox