New government – new challenges for women

The paucity of women amongst the new Government’s key decision makers as ministers, outer ministers and parliamentary secretaries has raised a furore in public debate. It also raises questions more generally about women’s progress in an advanced and wealthy democracy.

What of the efforts of women over the past 30, 50 or 100 years, to achieve political representation not only as voters but also as leaders and decision makers, and as people with capacities to achieve and contribute at the highest levels?

How can equal rights and equal opportunity principles be actualised and embodied when women are poorly represented in the key decision making arena of a society – the federal parliament?

What does it say about the structures of power that make it so difficult for women to move into leadership roles?

What messages does the poor showing of women in the new Coalition Government decision making team send to girls and young women?

It is inexcusable that there were so few women in the Coalition parties primed for cabinet posts – apart from Julie Bishop and Sophie Mirabella who has lost her seat, leaving only Julie Bishop. Where was the pool of women to fill some of those posts. SM’s loss should not have been an issue if other women had been ready to step in. We can only assume that there is a very high level of discrimination against women in reaching leadership roles in the Coalition parties.

We only need to look at the fantastic performers on the Labor side such as Julia Gillard, Nicola Roxon, Penny Wong, and Tanya Plibersek to see what is possible for women when there is a modicum of opportunity.

In a new article, I have taken up the question of what the new Government may mean for women’s equality and advancement.

Advance Australia’s women?

The lack of women in Tony Abbott’s cabinet line-up has attracted some sharp criticism, including from the ranks of the Liberal Party. Just how might this reflect his approach to some of the more intractable issues around women’s economic and employment equality?

As well documented, women participate on very different terms in the workforce than men resulting in a gender pay gap and lower retirement income.

The new Government will argue that it takes forward women’s claims for equality with its generous Paid Parental Leave Scheme to replace the existing scheme which is broadly comparable to those in other countries.

However, by any measure a paid parental leave scheme is just one plank in the raft of factors that contribute to women’s employment and economic equality. In addition, the funding and structure of the Government’s PPL scheme may undermine the other important factors that would help women on an ongoing basis with balancing care and work, and the raft of needs for greater employment and economic security, which also affect incomes in retirement.

While the PPL scheme is to be largely funded through a levy on large companies, in tandem with a reduction in the company tax rate, it is essentially foregone revenue that could have been spent elsewhere especially in a core area such as child care that directly impacts on women’s ongoing labour force participation.

The foregone revenue could have also reduced the need for cutbacks in social programs and services such as the school kids bonus  aimed to help lower income families many headed by women who are disproportionately represented in the lower paid jobs.

The Coalition PPL scheme potentially widens the gap between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ in employment. The ‘insiders’ consist of women in more secure and well paid employment and the ‘outsiders’ are those unemployed, the marginally attached, and [the legions in casual and short part-time hours jobs.

The ‘outsiders’ can access the PPL scheme if they meet a benchmark of employment participation. But as the scheme is linked to earnings, benefits are skewed to those in higher paid, full- time jobs. While it is argued that this is similar in effect to sick leave and holiday pay, the funding arrangements are quite different as noted above. The scheme is delivered through the Government’s Family Assistance Office so bears little relationship to other workplace entitlements provided by an employer. It is effectively a social welfare entitlement funded through collective revenues.

A crucial aspect of the inequity that the PPL scheme embodies relates to the very high level of involuntary underemployment amongst women at almost 10% of the female workforce (566,800 women in August 2013) This means the disadvantage of inadequate hours and pay in a job is translated into a lower benefit from the PPL scheme.

The Coalition has promised a review of child-care looking into costs and access, but given the so-called budget crisis, expectations must be low that the Government will provide the level of funding needed to overcome the present deficits.

The PPL scheme facilitates women’s return to full time, permanent jobs but does nothing to help their ongoing capacity to do those jobs. Women’s full-time labour force attachment can be eroded by becoming a single parent, by having a child with special needs, or by having a larger family. These are important and common ‘risk’ factors for women’s employment participation that are just as worthy of public policy intervention as a PPL scheme – and if equality claims are to have any weight.

In addition, the PPL scheme is not addressing those ongoing inequitable aspects of women’s employment that result in poorer retirement savings that the Australia Institute  The PPL provides little ongoing support of women in the workforce. New research shows that many women over 45 are entrapped in low end, casual jobs just at a time in their lives when they need to be focussing on retirement savings.

The Coalition budget savings measures include removal of the government superannuation co-contribution for low income earners which takes away a small benefit for such women. There is to be a new Seniors Employment Incentives payment for the unemployed over 50, to coax employers to take them on, but won’t help those already stuck in low end, casual jobs.

The situation of single parents who are mostly women, is arguably the most pressing amongst women’s issues in Australia at the present time given the high level of economic and employment disadvantage for this group. It is hard to see that there will be any traction for them under the Coalition government. The distressing article in the Fairfax press recently, recalled what single parents told me of their hardships for my research – before the Labor Government’s policy change earlier this year which forced many on to Newstart Allowance.

What would help single parents, apart from better income support, relate to those claims that will be crowded out by the PPL scheme – the needs for better jobs, opportunities for work/care balance, and accessible child care. Single parents need more help in obtaining skills for sustainable and well-paid employment. However, it seems likely they will be entrapped by tougher welfare policies.

The Government is set to introduce ‘work for the dole’ for anyone under 50 on Newstart for more than six months. This will make life harder for struggling single parents when their time outside of caring, should be spent on acquiring the skills to obtain a decent, sustainable job. There is little hope for any improvement in Newstart Allowance for unemployed people and the many single parents now reliant on this brutally low payment.

There may be acknowledgement of the gender pay gap problem by the Government but I suspect that many in the Coalition see issues of women’s employment along the lines of those espoused by UK sociologist Catherine Hakim – with its emphasis on choice and preferences rather than systemic barriers and discrimination. This fits with the broad leaning of the Coalition towards flexibility and choice in labour relations.

This ideological leaning does not bode well for an industrial relations framework that could help women such as better provisions for transitioning from casual to permanent employment status, and broader application of the National Employment Standards for those not in permanent jobs.

Claims for women’s economic and employment equality are not an optional extra or something for a ‘wish list’ as Tony Abbott has characterised the lack of women in his leadership team. They are an important plank in creating a productive and cohesive society with a fair measure of social equality. The lack of women in the key posts of the new government is a reminder of how tenuous and unresolved women’s progress and equal opportunity claims remain.

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