By Jane Caro
Despite women facing the wage gap, eventual poverty and possible homelessness, the government is quite happy to blame us for our fate.
As soon as the Federal Government understood that millions of Australians were likely to find themselves living on unemployment benefits for the foreseeable future, they realised just how politically untenable the previous rate actually was. They clearly couldn’t care less when it was just a bunch of old women and other marginalised people forced to eke out an existence on $40 a day, but millions more who had become unemployed through, as our politicians love to put it, ‘no fault of their own’ was a bridge too far.
So, in their self-interest and embarrassment (sorry, I can’t call it generosity), they added the $550 Coronavirus supplement to the usual Newstart rate, now called ‘JobSeeker’.
On the 25th of September, this supplement will drop to $250 a fortnight. This will be a blow for the newly unemployed – particularly as it is meant to drive them back into jobs that don’t exist. Nevertheless, even halved, the supplement remains a bonus for the long-term unemployed, most of whom are older and many of whom are women.
In that way, (as long as they don’t catch the virus and die, of course) the advent of COVID-19 has actually made the lives of many older women easier. The extraordinary dark irony of that fact seems to have passed most of our leaders and commentators by.
The terrible penalty we exact on women as they age in this wealthy country is horrifying. According to a report released in March this year by think tank Per Capita ‘Measure for Measure. Gender Equality in Australia’ 34% of single women (divorced, widowed or never married) are living in poverty by the age of 60. That number rises to 50% of them once they are living on the aged pension. These figures are pre-COVID.
The most galling part of these figures is the reasons why so many women in our society find themselves facing poverty as they age. There are too many to enumerate here, suffice to say it is directly a result of the sexist and misogynistic assumptions that dog women from the cradle to the grave. They include the fact that women – despite outperforming men and boys in all levels of education – are paid less from the minute they enter the workforce. They include the high cost of childcare, the tax disincentives deliberately designed to make it hard for mothers to return to full-time work, the gender-segregated nature of the Australian workforce, the assumption that women will do the lion’s share of unpaid work including domestic and caring duties, and the resulting over-representation of women in part-time, casual and low-paid jobs. And let’s not mention sexual harassment in the workplace or domestic violence and the thousand and one other things that can conspire to fling women into penury.
As a result of all this, women retire with an average of half the super of men (and men don’t have enough) and fully one-third of women retire with no super at all. (The same third who end up facing poverty at the age of 60, I wonder?)
Despite decades of feminism, all of these circumstances remain intractable, which is why me and my contemporaries (I am 63) are watching in horror as yet another generation of women race headlong towards the same abyss, especially if they remain or become single. For as long as I can remember, women have been told that a man is not a financial plan, but when I look at my contemporaries and who is secure and who is at risk, it seems that is a big fat lie.
The current generations of younger women – especially those just entering the workforce – are actually in the scariest place of all. We know this pandemic has disproportionately affected women. They have lost the most jobs, they have lost the most income and they have shouldered even more of the domestic, caring and home learning duties. Their super will be disproportionately affected. Our government in its infinite lack of wisdom has actually helped people access their super balances early to tide them through a contracting economy. The costs of this in later life will be huge, especially for women, who will never make good the loss.
The job stimulus packages offered by our government are so entirely focussed on male-dominated industries that it almost feels like they are trolling us. They even keep being referred to as ‘shovel-ready’ jobs. To absolutely rub women’s noses in it, the first group of workers removed from JobKeeper were childcare workers – overwhelmingly underpaid women. No one has been able to explain the logic of singling them out.
The confusion around childcare (ours is already one of the most expensive systems in the world) has forced many families to throw their hands up in despair and decide that – you guessed it – mum will have to give up her job. The message is clear: ‘go home ladies and help us make the unemployment stats look more politically palatable.’ At least, if they are young they may still have a home to go to. In a couple of decades, they may not. The fastest-growing group among homeless is women over 55, leaping up by a terrifying 31% between 2011 and 2016.
And what has been the Federal Government’s response to the pressure being brought to bear about the fate of half the Australian population – the best-educated half, by the way? Apart from some vague promises about plans to do something about the super gap, it’s all the stuff beloved by neo-liberals: an ‘economic security pack’ whatever that is, more parental leave flexibility, scholarships for women in economics and finance, specialist DV units (at least they mentioned it) and a female entrepreneur’s program. All well and good, if vague on detail, but where’s the social housing? Where’s the paying people’s super whenever they take time out of paid work to care for others? Where’s the free fucking childcare available to every family?
But the bit that really infuriated me about Assistant Minister for Financial Services Jane Hume’s package was the potted lecture she gave women and the super industry about the need to improve women’s financial literacy. The implied blame in that suggestion is at best tone-deaf and at worst utterly cynical. Once again, we blame women for their own fate. We turn our faces away from the very real barriers, biases and prejudices that hobble women at every turn and tell them they are poor because they are stupid and lazy about money.
In fact, women are poor as a direct result of doing what they are constantly told is their duty and putting the needs of others ahead of their own right to earn an income.
As I have said before, in today’s Australia we tell older women; ‘look, its lovely you put the needs of your kids, elderly relatives and anyone else in need of care ahead of yourself, thanks for that. Now, can you just go and live in your car?’
This article was originally published on The Big Smoke.
Jane Caro has a low boredom threshold and so wears many hats; including author, novelist, lecturer, mentor, social commentator, columnist, workshop facilitator, speaker, broadcaster and award winning advertising writer.
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