a centenary of continuous struggle for women

If I wanted an example of the misuse of feminism, it arrived this morning in a headline from the Herald Sun: “Influential women in push for super boost”. The article shows clearly how feminism is easily co-opted by blokey economics and why inequality between men and women was increasing and also between women.

The article said: “A who’s who of Australia’s 40 highest profile women have urged the government to increase compulsory superannuation payments to 12 per cent. In an open letter today, the women — from business, academia, the arts and public life — have used the eve of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day tomorrow to push for the higher funding.”

Superannuation is a good template for explaining why gender inequality is stalling and sometimes going backwards. The equal pay cases of ’70s closed the obvious gaps between men’s and women’s pay but failed to tackle the lower pay rates for feminised occupations or the biases in assumptions of what women’s work was worth. So we still have a 17% pay gap in average hourly rates. Add to that the likelihood that women will take time out and work fewer hours to cope with the major share of unpaid care, it is obvious that they will earn less over a life time than men.

So the question is why did the unions and ALP government design a retirement income system based on earnings and even more puzzling, why base it on tax concessions that massively benefit higher income earners. The current system substantially reduces the tax obligations of top income tax bracket payers but overtaxes those with low or no incomes, who are mostly female. So superannuation increases the gaps between higher and lower income earners in retirement, and access to pensions at the bottom end does not compensate for this. It doesn’t even save the government money because it costs a lot in income foregone.

So how did this happen? The superannuation scheme is a weird collaboration between the union movement and the finance industry, which benefits both their leaderships very substantially. It is the classic product of Paul Keating’s love affair with ’80s economistic policy making: a shift from public pooling for pensions to neoliberal market self provision and risk taking.

It was sold as relieving the taxpayer from having to pay for the needs in an ageing population, but failed to really acknowledge the level of public support in tax foregone. So now the costs of the super tax concessions just about match the costs of the aged pension, with the difference that the super concessions go mainly to the most wealthy. It will costs taxpayers another $8 billion on top of $26 billion to fund the 3% rise.

So why are 40 prominent women pushing for increasing retirement inequities, which raising the compulsory contribution to 12% will do? Their involvement further illustrates the illusion we had that having more women in top jobs would put our changes on the agenda.

How many of the 40 read what Ken Henry’s report said when it recommended against the rise because of its effect on lower income earners, in particular women? Why did they not question whether this rise would be useful to the bulk of women on lower incomes, whose plight they use to support the change? Like many others, I suspect they didn’t ask the questions because it’s too complex and the changes will benefit them?

This particular policy response illustrates the point I want to make on this centenary celebration, why we are not moving on and in fact sometimes going backwards. The past 20 or so years have seen few major changes that matched those in the earlier years. Then, we made the obvious changes that seriously irked women in the mid-century years in which we grew up. We have removed the laws that formally restricted our access to certain jobs, paid work, promotion or to other goods and services.

This means that overt s-x discrimination is now neither obvious nor legally acceptable. We changed how some issues were once defined or ignored: violence in families is no longer private; there are funded (and controlled) women’s services; we have more child care but it’s now commercialised and still too expensive.

Schools and universities have expanded their numbers of female students, so we now have majorities in many professional areas and added women to the histories of what men did. And there are many more women in high positions and even in the top positions.

There are, however, many questions on where we are now and are going. Where has all that education got us? There are relatively few women in high positions in the media, arts, law and medicine despite being majorities of graduates. The pay gap is increasing and the cultures of most workplaces remain focused on male-style long hours and unbalanced commitments

A key demand of Australia’s ’70s women’s movement somehow got lost: we wanted to change the inequalities of gender, not just to reshuffle numbers. We wanted the appropriate valuing of those activities that were primarily the responsibility of women, and still are predominantly. We didn’t define equality of women in male-defined terms.

This difference is illustrated by the 40 top women’s call for the expansion of a deeply sexist and inequitable retirement system. What has the women’s movement gained by having them there?  Where are the proposals for non-gendered retirement system that would recognise the needs and entitlements of  carers and others who had no access to high-paid work?  It’s not the minimum age pension.

We still have a long way to go, and we need to get moving because there are serious issues facing us as a society that cannot be solved by economic modelling of independent self-interested masculinity equations. I want to use feminist frameworks, together with what I’ve learnt in indigenous policy, to create a broad coalition of groups who want to make better societies. We need to put social collectivity back on the agenda, rather than competition, with economics reduced to funding and recognise feminist options have a lot to offer.