Opinion piece – This budget boost for working women will supercharge the economy

I wrote this Opinion Piece in the Australian Financial Review on the 18th April 2024.

Now, here’s a budget challenge to address productivity and prosperity.

Women are still getting into the boardroom, onto the sporting field, into the political chamber, not because of our system, but in spite of it.

Taylor Swift is dead right: “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can, wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man.”

Of course, she would. And with more kudos, less criticism and better pay.

Yet we don’t start behind.

Economic benefit for all

Australian women are among the most highly educated in the world, with similar levels of labour force participation to men, until they have children – when they fall behind and never catch up.

This is simply poor return on investment. We cannot ignore the strong link between women’s economic insecurity and violence.

And if we park the lame excuses (too expensive, too difficult) and the political cluelessness (advancing women disadvantages men), we can fix it while benefiting men, women, children, and the economy.

The facts stack up.

Time for transformative change

Here’s a snapshot of modern Australia, where we wilfully under-utilise 50 per cent of our economic potential.

Australian women are much less likely to work full-time than women in many other OECD countries, gender segregation persists across the economy, most casual workers are women, women do most of the care work, women continue to shoulder a disproportionate burden of unpaid labour and there is a stubborn gender pay gap of 21.7 per cent.

The recent Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce report spelt it out – the Australian economy would be boosted by $128 billion if the persistent and pervasive barriers to women’s full and equal participation were removed.

The government can remove some of the barriers by pulling the right policy levers.

Women voted with their feet at the last election. It’s time for transformative change in return and the government must not stop halfway.

It has made a start by expanding Paid Parental Leave (PPL) and superannuation on it, but where we need to get to is 52 weeks of shared paid parental leave and universal childcare.

This is the policy that will revolutionise our workforce and enable generations of girls.

Where to start

So, what can we do right now?

A good place to start is early childhood education and care (ECEC), which benefits children and parents.

First, ECEC is bleeding staff to aged care. Workers who care for our children need to be paid properly.

Otherwise, not enough staff means not enough places. That means families can’t access care and women can’t work as much as they want to.

Impact Economics and Policy analysis shows 264,000 women in households with children under five are not participating in the workforce and cite childcare as a barrier.

Parents’ dilemma

Second, the Activity Test, which limits access to subsidised care, disproportionately impacts those who can least afford it.

It was designed to encourage participation in the workforce but often does the opposite and the ACCC has recommended it be removed or substantially reconfigured.

As ECEC advocates Thrive by Five say: “It creates a dilemma for parents: you can’t find a job without childcare, and you can’t afford childcare without a job.”

Getting rid of it in the budget would enable women who are struggling most with the cost of living to work.

A national emergency

Not acting on women’s economic inequality has a grave side to it, too.

We cannot ignore the strong link between women’s economic insecurity and violence.

In Australia, 2.7 million women have experienced partner violence or abuse.

When women have financial independence, they have the power to make their own decisions.

As I recently wrote to the prime minister about the violence against women epidemic, we live in the “lucky country” yet we count dead women. Too often women are forced to choose between violence or poverty;

Four more women have been killed since I wrote that letter just a few weeks ago to explain this national emergency.

Women’s economic security can be a life-and-death matter.

And only when we dismantle the barriers to women’s full participation in the workforce can we be the country we want to be.

It’s all well and good having women in politics and in boardrooms, but if we’re not tackling the structural problems that keep our gender in its place, we’re failing.

Failing women who are not “in the room” and failing our future.

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