Female Economic Empowerment: How soon is now?

Recently, women across the country joined the March4Justice[1] to highlight the sexual misconduct of parliamentarians and their staffers against women. Underlying this march was a desire to be listened to and for their lived experiences as women to be recognised by the Federal Parliament. The missing piece to this discussion however is the fact that the root of much of this inequality is the structural economic disempowerment of women. The link between the issues is that female economic disempowerment perpetuates an environment where dominance, power and control can be financially, physically and societally asserted over women. While our economic system persists in underrecognizing the utility of women as economic agents, our society will persist in overvaluing men, at the expense of women. Addressing the causes and nature of sexual violence however, will require more than street protests; it will require a huge structural change to our economic system. More specifically, it will require policies to be viewed through a gendered lens to prevent economic discrimination between men and women.

Our economic system almost categorically takes women for granted. Largely, this is because the system wasn’t designed for us. In fact, it devalues the economic value of occupations that are typically filled by females in low-wage industries such as healthcare and education.[2] It even fails to count “women’s work”, such as domestic work and child-rearing, as real work. Data has shown that if such work were to be compensated, it is estimated it would amount to 10-39% of GDP.[3] However, by failing to see the economic value of women, we fail to recognise the value of women to society.

On top of this, our system financially disempowers women. Women face a gender pay gap of 14%, despite being more likely than a man to have earned a university degree.[4] This essentially means that the full-time earnings of a woman is 86% that of a man.[5] Women are also less likely to attain high profile and high paying positions, with statistics demonstrating that women comprise only 32.5% of key management positions and 18.3% of CEO roles.[6] It follows that a woman’s reduced earning capacity inevitably reduces her superannuation accumulation over her lifetime, compared to her male counterparts, by as much as half.[7] Women also face higher HECS-HELP debt, as it typically takes them longer to pay off the loan.[8] Statistics have even shown that women over 55 are the single largest growing demographic of Australia’s homeless population[9], as they are more likely to rely on the senior pension in their retirement and live in poverty in their old age.[10]

Due to their structural vulnerability, economic instability appears to hit women far harder than men. You only have to look at the gender effects of the pandemic – coined the “Pink Recession”[11] – to see this. Women were and are more likely to face involuntary and voluntary job losses, particularly those in insecure employment.[12] They also have experienced a disproportionate increase in the burden of unpaid child-care as schools went virtual.

To address these historical and emerging issues, a gendered lens must be applied to all policies to prevent it from having structurally discriminatory effects – especially if it is intended to have a blanket effect, such as superannuation. Unfortunately, the recent announcement and subsequent backflip on the government’s policy to allow early access to economic superannuation for those fleeing domestic violence, indicates that such a gendered lens is only being applied to the detriment of women’s economic futures.[13]  Without empowerment, gender equality will not be achieved.

There are many ways to tackle these issues. Free child-care, which was introduced and then pulled in the early days of the pandemic,[14] would be a good place to start.[15] Such a policy, will incentivise mothers to re-enter the workforce as the expense of childcare will no longer detract from their wages. Supporting women into positions of power is another, with structural mechanisms such as political party quotas. Via quotas, we can ensure that the views of women are represented by their leaders, at a state and federal level.[16] If we wanted to get radical, we could even take steps to recognise and monetise unpaid domestic work.[17] While, enacting such a policy would raise significant challenges to our economic system, it would be a powerful step forward for gender equality if we were willing to do so as pink work would no longer be demarcated from blue work.

Applying a gendered lens to these issues will benefit the Australian economy immensely. For example, if we closed the gender pay gap in Australia, our GDP would rise 11%.[18] The economy would grow by $8 billion if university-educated women entered the workforce at the same rate as men. Statistics have even shown businesses with women in leadership are more profitable than male-helmed organisations.[19] The benefit of female economic empowerment therefore goes beyond just helping women; it would also help the economy. Incorporating gender equality into economic policy therefore makes sense on all levels.  

Sadly, female economic empowerment is unlikely to entirely end sexual misconduct. The two issues however are negatively related. By empowering women economically, we will send a strong signal of our values as a society and what type of behaviour we will and will not tolerate. If action is not taken to place female economic issues at the heart of government policies, then we are merely paying lip service to the other issues facing women and not addressing them.


[1] Webb, C., & Eddie, R. (2021). Thousands gather in Melbourne for Women’s March 4 Justice. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/thousands-gather-in-melbourne-for-women-s-march-4-justice-20210315-p57arl.html

[2] Brandimarti, C., & Hawker, C. (2021). Memo to the Morrison Government: It’s time to actually understand women’s economic security and safety. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://womensagenda.com.au/latest/memo-to-the-morrison-government-its-time-to-actually-understand-womens-economic-security-and-safety/

[3]  Facts and Figures: Economic Empowerment. (2021). Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/economic-empowerment/facts-and-figures

[4] Gender Indicators, Australia, 2020. (2021). Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/people-and-communities/gender-indicators-australia/latest-release#economic-security

[5] Gender Indicators, Australia, 2020. (2021). Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/people-and-communities/gender-indicators-australia/latest-release#economic-security

[6] Women in leadership: WGEA. (2021). Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.wgea.gov.au/women-in-leadership

[7] Unleashing the power of gender equality (2017): Australian Human Rights Commission. (2021). Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sex-discrimination/publications/unleashing-power-gender-equality-2017

[8]  Fitzsimmons, C. (2021). High HECS debt is another barrier to equal parenting. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.smh.com.au/business/the-economy/high-hecs-debt-is-another-barrier-to-equal-parenting-20200630-p557p2.html

[9] Risk of Homelessness in Older Women | Australian Human Rights Commission. (2021). Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/age-discrimination/projects/risk-homelessness-older-women

[10] Unleashing the power of gender equality (2017): Australian Human Rights Commission. (2021). Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sex-discrimination/publications/unleashing-power-gender-equality-2017

[11] Boyle, J., Garad, R., & Teede, H. (2021). There’s a fundamental need to reverse the ‘pink recession’. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://lens.monash.edu/@medicine-health/2020/12/14/1381848/theres-a-fundamental-need-to-reverse-the-pink-recession

[12] Wallace, C. (2021). It ‘s been a remarkably good and remarkably bad year for Australian women. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-28/2020-women-coronavirus-recession/13004320

[13] Doran, M. (2021). Government dumps plan to allow domestic violence victims to withdraw superannuation. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-03-22/government-dumps-domestic-violence-victims-superannuation-plan/13268294

[14] Wallace, C. (2021). It ‘s been a remarkably good and remarkably bad year for Australian women. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-28/2020-women-coronavirus-recession/13004320

[15] Jenkins, M. (2021). Gender work gap: Women lost more jobs, hours than men during recession. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://thenewdaily.com.au/finance/news-federal-budget/2021/03/07/gender-work-gap/

[16] McIlroy, T. (2021). ‘Here on merit’: Labor MPs tell Scott Morrison to get real on quotas. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/here-on-merit-labor-mps-tell-scott-morrison-to-get-real-on-quotas-20210324-p57dm9

[17] WGEA, Gender Equality in Australia – A Guide to Gender Equality in 2020, WGEA. (2021). Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.wgea.gov.au/newsroom/gender-equality-in-australia-a-guide-to-gender-equality-in-2020#:~:text=Recognition%20of%20the%20value%20of,No%20gendered%20violence

[18] Victorian Government, The benefits of gender equality: Victorian Government. (2021). Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.vic.gov.au/benefits-gender-equality://www.vic.gov.au/benefits-gender-equality

[19] Victorian Government, The benefits of gender equality: Victorian Government. (2021). Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.vic.gov.au/benefits-gender-equality://www.vic.gov.au/benefits-gender-equality