It’s not often Margaret Thatcher is quoted in support of structural feminist arguments for fairness. She wasn’t actually talking about women when she said “there is no liberty without economic liberty”.
But when it comes to explaining gender inequality in Australia, the words, at least, are right. Two alarming reports that have surfaced in the past fortnight expose the economic bedrock on which the material disadvantage of Australian women is perpetuated.
The first? Last week we learned that single women on average pay can’t afford to live alone in Sydney or in most Melbourne suburbs, the two most populous cities in Australia.
The second? That the industry that educates children in early childhood – and which in Australia just happens to be 95% female – employs workers “on such low pay that they can not start a family, travel, or successfully apply for a mortgage”.
These workers are not alone. Australian law has obliged employers to pay women and men equally for the same work since 1969, yet the disparities in what we pay industries dominated by female workers compared to those employing male ones exposes how deeply the gendered structural inequalities remain.
Nareen Young wrote in 2013 that “women’s work has never been seen as meritorious or valuable as men’s”. It’s now 2016, and the traditionally female-dominated professions of care work, community work, healthcare, human services, education, retail, food services and accommodation work pay less than male dominated fields of construction, engineering, mining and finance.
Some people insist that the pay disparity results from a somewhat incredible worldwide coincidence that statistically significant numbers of women pursue work with low pay. Gendered stereotypes excuse the poor pay of female-dominated industries on the fanciful basis that women don’t seek work for money so much as for the happy, positive feelings aroused by underpaid industrial servitude. Evidence, alas, demonstrates that devaluing stereotypes follow women into the workplace – because once women enter an industry, the pay drops.
Equal rights to education and opportunity remain gestures towards equality and not outcomes while women continue to earn less, and retire with less. This confluence of circumstances denies women the means to live independently, almost 90 years after Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own. And it encourages economic dependencies that can compromise gender equality in debilitating – and dangerous – ways.
The ongoing underpayment of early childhood educators illustrates two simultaneous disadvantages felt by Australian women. Arguments against raising pay in this industry to the comparable standard enjoyed by men with similar qualifications, such as construction workers or plasterers, are made by the private childcare operators who complain of limitations on profit opportunities in an industry where wages account for two-thirds of operating costs.
But this argument itself is proof of the structural inequity that overburdens Australian women – yes, women – with responsibility for integrating their working lives – the hours they can work and the kind of jobs they can commit to doing – around care obligations. Running childcare as profit-making businesses restricts the service to those who can meet its costs, denying the community universal gains of the better education for all children.
It also impacts women’s productivity. In nations with childcare that’s affordable, well-organised and supported by the state, such as France and the the Scandinavian nations, the female workforce participation rate is higher, and incidentally, so is the birth rate. According to the Grattan Institute, increasing the female workforce participation rate by a mere 6 percentage points is enough to add $25bn of value to Australia’s GDP.
There are few working Australian women unfamiliar with the “juggle struggle” of managing their jobs with family responsibilities – the term itself has been a feature of the national discourse for more than a decade.
But as we try to unpick the social threads that facilitate female vulnerability to family violence, we have to recognise that these restrictions on women’s economic liberty – low pay, lack of housing options and care obligations – coalesce into situations that structurally diminish women’s social status and oblige women into vulnerable living situations.
The University of Wisconsin revealed in research from 2012 that women who are financially dependent on their partners are more likely to be abused by them, that they’re less likely to leave these abusers, and even “the degree of women’s economic dependence on an abuser is associated with the severity of the abuse they suffer”. Economic abuse and enforced poverty is, of course, a form of controlling cruelty in itself.
It’s necessary for feminism to promote the ascendancy of women to equal positions of power and influence as enjoyed by men – but electing Margaret Thatcher prime minister hardly ended gender inequality in Britain. The only meaningful redress is comprehensive structural change to create material parity. This is what will allow women to enjoy the same independence as men.
And right now, we don’t have it. Single working women on average wages in Sydney and most of Melbourne cannot afford to live alone. Men can. Does that look anything like fairness to you?
- This article was amended on 12 October 2016 to correctly attribute the figures regarding the boost to the economy of increasing female workforce participation rates to the Grattan Institute.
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