International Women's Day: Blue Stockings, Babies and Bank accounts

8 March 2012

Professor Marian Baird.
Professor Marian Baird.

Marian Baird is a Professor of Employment Relations in the University of Sydney Business School and Director of the Women and Work Research Group. She gave the below presentation today to mark International Women's Day in an event organised by the Staff and Student Equal Opportunity Unit.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet this International Women's Day - and I pay my respect to their elders past and present. I would especially acknowledge role of women as providers and mothers, often juggling their roles as in unpaid and paid work.

I'd like to begin my speech by wishing you all a very happy 101st International Women's Day and to let you know that I feel extremely honoured and humbled to be speaking today - to you, my friends and colleagues and visitors to this University.

When I was invited to provide the title for today's address I was reminded to not be 'too academic' - and to build on the theme of International Women's Day for this year - which is 'Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures' - and I will do my best to live up to that expectation.

I can honestly say that I never imagined myself to be in a position to deliver an address on International Women's Day. To be here is an opportunity to openly and sincerely acknowledge the work that so many women before me did to open the way for our more equal participation in society, one of the most important being access to education. Education not only provides increased work opportunities and avenues for self fulfilment for individual women, as the OECD argue, it is also associated with better health of young women and their children.

My own education was here at University of Sydney, on a teacher's scholarship, but that gave me the opportunity to mix with a whole new group of university students who were direct beneficiaries of the Whitlam policies of free tuition. Not only did the policy mean more students could afford to attend university, it also meant they and their parents changed their minds about who could have a university education. The policy and normative changes went hand-in-hand. This is a theme I return to in light of new women and work policies in Australia.

Titles are always important to academics, as you know! Some of us spend a lot of time thinking of the title - To say mine is blue stockings, babies and bank accounts is to firstly acknowledge the many women who fought for policy and political change here and overseas.

But why include 'babies' in the title? I recognise that not all women have children, yet reproduction does tend to define the role of women in society - even today - and I have long argued that policies that address the implications of that role difference on our lives are needed.

And why bank balances? This is a short hand way of referring to the differences in economic outcomes between men and women. It is perhaps the critical difference in current day society - and the economic differences reflect background, education and employment opportunities.

International Women's Day is the day that recognises the many aspects of women's lives, but particularly their working lives, and the three b's (blue stocking, babies and bank accounts) - symbolise the three areas of policy and practice that always need to be addressed, because despite progress that has been made, there remain gender differences in employment participation, in access to careers and jobs, in job security, in pay and in superannuation.

In Australia women constitute almost half the paid workforce but contribute far more than half the time in unpaid care and domestic work. Women's workforce participation rates have been rising - and the government and industry would like still more women to enter the workforce.

Women earn less than men - no matter what measure is used. Women earn 17-18% less in average full-time weekly earnings, and on hourly rates, they earn 11% less than men. The reasons for these pay gaps are complex but they include job segregation, years of undervaluing the work that women do, broken work histories and years of part-time work which dramatically affect their wages.

Then, as women enter professions in growing numbers, straight out gender discrimination in pay occurs. Furthermore, childcare responsibilities and age increase the pay gap for female mangers, but not for males.

In relation to superannuation, that is, one of the key future indicators of economic security in older age, women fare poorly - due to working fewer hours in order to care as well as having worse paid jobs, often underpaid as they mirror work women do unpaid at home - a double whammy. For those still in work, women had an average superannuation balance of $52,272 with a median value of $18,489; by contrast, men's balances averaged $87,589 with a median value of $31,252.

Interestingly, according to recent OECD statistics, Australian men and women both spend more time in unpaid work than many other countries, but Australian women still spend approximately 2 and a half hours more than men in unpaid work per day. One way women manage this is by working part-time. Close to half of all Australian women at work are in part-time jobs, and many of these are in precarious, casual positions, an area under review right now by a national trade union commission. Women are often forced to trade off job security for job flexibility, but because they are good mothers and good women they commonly accept this position without complaint, and instead as our research has shown, think of themselves as 'lucky mothers' rather than displaced workers.

A number of significant policy changes have occurred in Australia in the past few years, and governments and tribunals have begun to address some of these issues.

Let me remind you however, that these have had to be fought for. In my experience, policies that change the status quo, especially in favour of women, are never just granted without an argument. This was so for the notional equal pay victories of the 1970s and remains the case.

These new policies, , include the introduction of paid maternity leave for all working women (very belatedly introduced compared to other countries), the introduction of the right to request flexible work arrangements, and equal remuneration decisions in the NSW, QLD and federal industrial tribunals. The most recent of these being the very significant Social and Community Workers case, where part of the undervaluation of women's work was judged by Fair Work Australia to be directly due to gender. In this decision SACS employees were awarded pay rises of between 19 to 41 per cent. Unfortunately, the new rates will be phased in over eight years and certain groups such as home care workers were excluded. The struggle for equal pay for these workers is not over.

More policy change is before parliament as we speak - this is the change to the EOWA Act - with the renaming of the act and agency to the Workplace Gender Equality Act and Agency.

Because more and more women work, and over a particular female's life cycle, a woman will inevitably enter - and re-enter - the workforce a number of times, what happens in the workplace will determine much of the rest of her life's experiences.
The amendments to the Act are therefore welcome. This new Act will enable the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to collect hard data and push employers to make workplaces more gender equitable for men and women, to set indicators and benchmarks by industry in relation to pay, and also promote more sharing of caring and family responsibilities. Reporting will be mandatory and procurement and access to grants will be withheld if employers do not meet the standards.

I mentioned female life cycles earlier, and this is where babies, and care more broadly, come into the picture. For years Australian feminists argued for paid maternity leave as one of the policies needed to put women on a more even footing with men and to recognise the contribution women make to society through their child bearing.

Australia's scheme began in January 2011 and the most recent statistics show that 126,000 families, i.e. women, have benefitted from the scheme. Most importantly, the review of the new scheme shows that almost half of all women who now receive 18 weeks at the federal minimum wage while they are caring for their newborn received earn less than the minimum wage of $43,000 per year and more than likely received no maternity leave pay from their employer before the scheme's introduction. They and their babies are now in a much better position.

However the scheme does not include superannuation while on maternity leave. This is another battle yet to be won.

But we must ensure that the hard won victories are not turned against women now or in the future, - that the policies do not produce perverse outcomes. By this I mean, we do not want to see an increase in discrimination against women because they are doing better in education and at work - there is far too much of discrimination and harassment already in Australian workplaces and the labour market. We need to ensure that employers select graduates and new female labour market entrants on the basis of their abilities and not on imagined life or caring responsibilities, that they offer permanency and promotions to women as they do to men and that they don't make conscious or unconscious judgements about a woman's ability to do the job.

We must also ensure that employers value the work commitment and productivity of Australian women workers - to recognise that working in more flexible arrangements can produce better outcomes for all. To do this, we need a mindset change as well as a policy change - and this is where education must play an important role.

Universities have become the entry path to careers and life for many young Australians, and 56% of these young people are women. . It is at university that their exposure to new ideas, new norms, often begins.

These students are the pools from which employers draw - and what we need to do is ensure that our students take with them the capacity to live and work differently, with a good education and better understanding of their roles as men and women in Australian life.

It's not just about learning as universities are also places where many women and men work. The tertiary education sector is now one of Australia's major export earners. And yet, for all the knowledge generated in our 'ivory towers' and 'sandstone walls', gender demarcation is profound.

With the problems of casual work - noting that of the 67,000 casual academic staff employed by universities across Australia, 57% are women, - low promotion rates for women, sex segregation in faculties and in leadership positions, the challenges for women in the Australian workforce are highlighted in our own workplaces perhaps more than in any other industry. How can we role model a newer, more innovative future for our students if we don't act on this ourselves?

I have covered many policy changes but they are of course, in the main, predicated on being in employment.

To say that having a secure job is the fundamental work-life issue is an understatement. As I am confident many of you are aware, we are in difficult and tense environment here in our own workplace, and I can assure you that my voice, along with others, has been used to suggest an alternative approach to dealing with the constraints that universities in Australia are facing. It is essential that we meet the challenges of the workplace with solutions that do not undermine the lives of our own colleagues.

Let me stress - that while we celebrate much that has been gained in Australia for Australian women and society at large, we cannot weaken our resolve to continue to work for women's equality with men because while women enter the workforce in greater numbers, their job security is undermined; while women enter universities in larger numbers, their progress in the workplace remains unequal; while we have achieved some success with equal pay struggles, full equality in remuneration is a long way off; while we have won paid maternity leave, the absence of superannuation from the scheme needs to be addressed; while we make it unlawful to sexually harass or abuse women, discrimination and violence against women continues; … These are the policy changes and practices yet to be won, and there will be more.

On International Women's Day 2012, I would like to conclude by saying that policy change for the better has occurred and we need to follow this in deed and action; in our own lives at work and in the community. But we must also be aware of the possibility of unintended outcomes of any policies - and when we see them emerging, we should speak up and act up to make sure that the policies do deliver what we intended: equitable, fair and secure lives for all.

In this way we can ensure that young women, middle aged women and older women, that all people, can be inspired by what has been achieved in the past by active women and their advocates, and ensure that we maintain the momentum that our sisters fought for.

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