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International Women’s Day: Gender inequality, are we progressing?

Forty years since women earned the right to equal pay for equal work, it is a poor reflection on Australia that as International Women’s Day was marked around the world this week, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported the gender pay gap in this country had reached a 20-year high.International Women's Day

Men now earn almost $300 more per week than women based on the average weekly earnings for full-time workers. PwC also announced Australia has dropped six places in its annual index ranking female economic empowerment, to 15th. This was the largest drop out of the 27 OECD countries measured.

A result of this ongoing gender inequity is that Australian women are more vulnerable to poverty than men. A growing number of older women in particular are becoming homeless due to low incomes and superannuation, and a lack of access to affordable housing. In many cases these women have spent decades raising children and caring for others, then find themselves facing poverty and isolation in later life.

The gender gap stems from many reasons, including women being paid less than their male counterparts, being more likely to be in part-time or casual employment, and being overrepresented in lower-paid industries.

In 2011 Fair Work Australia recognised that gender has been an important reason for the wage gap between the community service sector and other comparable government sectors. It issued the Equal Remuneration Order to address the historical under-payment of community service workers, the majority of whom are women. It is important that the Equal Remuneration Order continues to be funded by government, to ensure community organisations can meet their obligations without cutting staff or services.

Women are also less likely to be in the workforce than men. The Victorian participation rate for men is 71.1%, but for women it is only 58.7%, which is below the OECD average. Women facing disadvantage may experience even greater barriers to workforce participation than other women. Their job prospects may be limited by where they live, their caring responsibilities, lower levels of education and training, and lack of access to financial resources and family support.

Australia has tried a range of strategies to address the workforce participation barriers women face. These include subsidised childcare, encouraging flexible workplace practices and introducing paid parental leave. But progress remains slow. Women continue to report that access to childcare is a major reason they are not in the labour force. The Productivity Commission has recommended a number of changes to improve childcare arrangements, including simplifying government subsidies for childcare and targeting assistance to lower and middle-income families.

In implementing these recommendations the Australian government must also focus on ensuring all children (and children facing disadvantage in particular), have access to high quality early learning and care to support their development, regardless of the workforce benefits.

Other important factors to be considered by the government in addressing workforce participation include the availability of flexible and family-friendly work arrangements and whether or not the tax system acts as a disincentive for women returning to work. The Australian National Committee for UN Women is calling for a National Women’s Participation Strategy that considers all these complexities of gender equality, the barriers to women’s participation at work and the structural and attitudinal changes needed to enable women’s full participation at work.

Gender inequality is also an underlying driver of violence against women. Challenging gender stereotypes and attitudes is essential to preventing this violence. The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence is an important opportunity to look at what Victoria needs to do to tackle the attitudes and stereotypes that lead to violence against women and their children. VCOSS looks forward to working closely with the Victorian government and community sector throughout the Royal Commission.