Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 March 2012


International Women's Day

8:09 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very pleased to rise this evening because last week it was Interna­tional Women's Day and I had the privilege of celebrating the 101st International Women's Day at a number of events, one of which was with young political activists and the other of which was with women trade unionists. I think these two events link closely with the issues I would like to speak about this evening. They are women's participation in politics and in the workforce.

I want to reflect briefly on women's representation in politics because it is worth taking stock of where we are in this place. Next year it will be 70 years since Dorothy Tangney became the first woman elected to the Senate. So just how far have we come since 1943? A very long way indeed but not far enough. We have our first female Prime Minister and a record number of cabinet ministers, but I think we would be too hasty to declare equality for women. The Guardian recently ranked countries according to the percentage of women in their national parliaments, and even I was surprised to find that Australia places only 41st. We are substantially outranked by countries like Nicaragua, which is ninth, and Mozambique, 12th. We are closely trailed by Sudan, 42nd, and Namibia, 43rd. Frankly, these figures are disappointing. We should be fifty-fifty, as should all of these other countries. It shows that, while we have made significant progress, we do remain behind the pack on women's political participation.

Unfortunately, the story of women's workforce participation is much the same, with good progress being made but a history of women's disempowerment still standing in our nation's way. Many people forget that women's workforce participation is at the very heart of International Women's Day. In fact, the day was originally called International Working Women's Day and was held in protest of sex discrimination in employment. Despite the change of name, women's economic empowerment should be at the front of our minds on International Women's Day because it remains one of our greatest areas of concern when it comes to gender.

Even today the gender pay gap in Australia stands at roughly 17 per cent, meaning that, for every $1 earned by a man, a woman earns only 83c. In 2010, the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling estimated that the gap cost Australia nearly $93 billion a year in productivity. In states like WA that contrast is even more stark, with the gender gap sitting currently at around 25 per cent. I think that in part that is because of the many well-paid jobs we have in the mining industry that not as many women are benefiting from.

The concerning part of this is that the gender pay gap has not significantly changed in more than 20 years. Where it closed rapidly prior to that, we have now stalled, and it now seems there is a long way to go till we reach parity. But I do think we are taking some very bold steps forward. Indeed, it was only last year that the Australian Services Union won its equal pay case, and that is indeed a bold step forward. They argued before Fair Work Australia that work in the community sector was routinely dismissed as unskilled caring work performed mainly by women. This, they argued, led to the undervaluation of work and a resultant wage gap. As we all know now, they were judged to be correct. The full bench of Fair Work Australia acknowledged this fact in their judgment. They stated that they believed gender has been an important part of creating the gap between the pay in social and community services industries and the pay in comparable state and local government employment. That is, they found that gender is still a driver of income inequality in the 21st century here in Australia.

So I am very proud to be part of a government that acted on those findings in November last year when our first female Prime Minister announced that this Labor government will contribute $2 billion to help close this gap between men's and women's pay. It is a significant investment. It is an investment not only in a fairer economy but also in an economy that is more productive. The Fair Work Australia decision proves that we are at an important juncture in history. We are living in a time when institutionalised disadvantages are being torn down. We are living in a time when governments and businesses are doing their bit to make sure that women are not subjected to poverty traps because of their gender and, as has always been the case, it is Labor that is taking up this good fight.

However, even with Labor's historic reforms, like compulsory superannuation, women can and do fall behind. In 2007 figures showed that 59 per cent of women aged 55 years and over had no superannuation at all. Therefore it is little wonder that women make up the majority of aged pensioners. We live in a society where we are living longer, well in our 80s, and yet we have not provided women with the financial resources to live into old age with dignity. Instead, they are reliant on social security which, while it is also a great Labor reform, is not the retirement that we should be envisaging for women in our great country. Instead, it has long been known by Labor feminists that women's independence and self-determination cannot be realised without access to work under reasonable conditions and fair pay.

Increasing women's employment is one of the most effective ways of building the productivity of women. A study by Goldman Sachs, which I have referred to before in this chamber, estimates that the shrinking of the gender gap in employment has added a massive 22 per cent to Australia's GDP since 1974. There are very few other things that we could point to that give such a great lift in productivity. As our population ages, we know that the jobs expected to grow are in traditionally female dominated areas—things like nursing homes, health assistance and child care.

The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations projects that the largest number of new jobs by 2012-16 is expected to come from health care and social assistance, with a total of 323,000 jobs in this field alone. In order to keep up with this growth and maintain our productivity, we have to make sure that women feel adequately supported both at work and at home. We need women to be full participants in our economy and paid equitably, assisting them to support not only their own families but also our society.

That is why explaining this is so important. Suzanne Bianchi, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at UCLA, found:

In countries where women's labour market opportunities expand but women are still expected to do most of the housework and childcare with little assistance from men, many women exercise the only choice available; they remain childless when work and family roles are too difficult to reconcile.

Yet that preference has been has been turned around in other parts of the world, and I think Australia should do more in that regard.

For example, women in Scandinavia are both more likely to work and more likely to have children than their sisters in other developed countries. Why? Because Scandinavian countries are getting the policy settings right. With significant government support for parental leave, child care and training they show that it is possible to have both more children and more working families. We know that if we get the policy settings right, if we properly support women, we can produce healthier and more financially secure families. Educated women who are participating in the workforce tend to raise children that are healthy and better educated. I think that we should aspire for women to be able to have those opportunities and have those choices.

As I highlighted before, on average in OECD countries, children in households without an adult in work are three times more likely to grow up in poverty than children in one-earner households, and children in single-earner households are three times more likely to grow up in poverty than children in dual-earner households. If we can ensure that women can find employment or that they can return to work easily if they leave the workforce temporarily, their families will be better off financially and socially while these women also will reap the economic and social benefits of employment. The alternative, when women disengage even partially from the workforce because of domestic responsibilities, is that they are less likely to work and less likely to work full time in the future. Today, thinking of International Women's Day, I know that these are issues that the Gillard Labor government is focused on now and into the future.