How to 'fix women' & get them to 'Lean In'? Examine the Budget

How to ‘fix women’ and get them to ‘Lean In’? Examine the 2021 Women’s Budget Statement

In the 2021 Women’s Budget Statement, the word “choice” appears 13 times.
Women's Budget Statement and the 'lean in' mantra

Ahead of the launch of the 2021 federal budget– a budget some suggested would be a “women’s budget” – many asked me what, specifically, I was looking for.

What would indicate to me that the Morrison government had truly taken to heart the backlash to last year’s budget, in particular criticism that it had failed to deliver for women?

I concede that the fact the government itself heavily implied that this year’s budget would be a “women’s budget” is, in a way, progress. Particularly when compared to their insistence — just seven months ago — that the “budget wasn’t gendered” and “no one credible” would suggest it should be. Or, my personal favourite, “women love driving on roads!”

But this year my key KPI, the thing I was looking for above and beyond any particular budget measure in relation to women (though I certainly have some views on those…patience, patience) was a significant paradigm shift in how the Morrison government understands gender inequality – and seeks to address it.

My verdict: the 2021 Budget has failed to deliver that paradigm shift. Here’s why.

Last year, in the wake of *that* budget, I asked what the 2020 budget had in common with the iconic 1980’s film Working Girl. The answer: it’s up to you, the ladies of Australia, to “make it happen”.

In a famous scene from the film, Sigourney Weaver’s scheming Katharine Parker advises her protégé, the striving Tess McGill (played by Melanie Griffith), that, “You don’t get anywhere in this world by waiting for what you want to come to you. You make it happen.”

Later in the film, when Katharine informs a disappointed Tess that she has missed out on a place in the executive training program, Katharine asks Tess to repeat the mantra.

“Who makes it happen,” she asks Tess. “I make it happen,” Tess dutifully replies, having drunk the “Lean In” Kool-Aid Katharine so liberally pours.

In 2020, the women of Australia were effectively told to do the same thing. Now, seven months later, they’re still being told to “make it happen”.

Let me explain.

Many of the measures outlined in The Women’s Budget Statement to tackle women’s economic security are essentially the same “Lean In” clap-trap that this government has long relied on. They focus on “fixing women” and getting them to “lean into” male-dominated industries.

Of the 18 “new” initiatives to promote women’s economic security featured in the Women’s Budget Statement, nine (half) are targeted at “fixing women”: essentially to “train”, “boost” and “develop” their own way out of the gender pay gap. They include things like the Career Revive Program, the Mid-Career Checkpoint Initiative, and programs to encourage more women into STEM.

A further two of the 18 new initiatives to promote women’s economic security are actually sizeable grants for Matildas football matches and the FIBA Women’s World Cup.

Now, I’m all for women’s sport and funding women’s sport, but the link to women as a groups’ economic security of this $17 million of investment eludes me. It’s more than a bit cheeky of the Morrison government to suggest there is one, and it smacks of a government casting around for anything, anything at all, to put in the ladies’ column.

That leaves just seven of the 18 new initiatives aimed at women’s economic security actually linked to the structural drivers of that insecurity. And, even then, most will deliver a modest benefit at best, such as removing the $450 threshold for the super guarantee or the poorly targeted extension of access to the down-sizers contribution to super.

In relation to the latter: older women who experience poverty and homelessness — they are the fastest growing portion of the homeless population over the age of 55 — are very unlikely to own their own home. The logic of suggesting they top up their super with funds from the sale of a home they don’t have is mystifying.

Moving on from Working Girl, as is my habit, I also searched the number of times the word “choice” appears in the Women’s Budget Statement as opposed to the word “discrimination”.

Why do I do this and what does this tell me about a paradigm shift? It reveals the extent to which this is a Government for whom gender inequality is down to women’s “choices” and for whom “discrimination” — or structural drivers — do not exist.

In the 2021 Women’s Budget Statement, the word “choice” appears 13 times, compared to the word “discrimination”, which appears just six times, three of those in Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ job title or in reference to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

The 2020 tally was: “choice” 19 times, discrimination 12 times, but eight of those were in relation to Jenkins’ job title or the footnotes. In 2018, “choice” appeared 13 times, including in the title, Greater Choice for Australian Women. “Discrimination”? Just three times, two of those in Jenkins’ job title.  

What’s clear is that the Morrison government is kicking the can down the road on the issue of women’s economic security – or lack thereof. Aside from the relatively few, modest measures in the Women’s Budget Statement designed to “fix” women and get them to make the right “choices”, this government lacks a vision to address the underlying, structural drivers of gender inequality.

A more ambitious childcare plan, movement on paid parental leave equality, super contributions paid during parental leave, anything to address the undervaluing of women’s work, particularly in caring professions, the acknowledgement of the existence of pregnancy discrimination, which affects one in two women? Anything on any of those fronts would be a start.

The Women’s Budget Statement did, however, announce that National Cabinet will focus on the issue of women’s economic security in July and “consider establishing a national plan for women’s economic security”.

Perhaps by then we’ll see that long overdue paradigm shift. If not, I invite the women of Australia for whom economic security is an important issue to make a different “choice” at the next election in favour of a political party more inclined to “make it happen”.

Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica

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