I would like to start by thanking our host Melinda Cilento, the facilitator for today’s discussion. I would also like to thank Deanne Stewart and Debra Mika for their introduction.
Today I would like to contemplate the journey of Australian women.
In so many respects we have come a long way on that journey. Whether it is improvements in the services and interventions to keep women safe from violence; whether it is through women having control over their bodies and reproductive rights; whether it is the freedom that technology has brought us; or the expectation that girls and boys deserve the same educational opportunities; or whether it is the increasing engagement of women in the paid workforce to name just a few – each of these important steps on the journey have come about because of an aspiration that women deserve the same opportunities as men to live their very best lives.
But despite the inroads made, and despite significant improvements, it is still a reality that women continue to trail men in three key measures: economic security, participation in the workforce and wealth.
Whilst not downplaying any of the other important areas of focus – a key priority for our Government is to create the right economic settings for women to help them participate in work, increase their economic security and give them meaningful choices about their lives.
And I am honoured to represent and champion the women of Australia through my role as Minister for Women – a ministerial initiative in public policy that was first made by a Coalition Government under Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.
The journey of women in Australia is an evolving story, and it is sometimes worth recalling how far we have come in a few decades.
Before 1956, women working in education in Australia were not allowed to continue to teach once they were married – and up until 1966 there was a ban on employing married women in the Commonwealth Public Service.
Women weren’t even allowed to drink in public bars until 1965.
In 1973, paid maternity leave was introduced for Commonwealth employees.
In 1974, the minimum wage was extended to include female workers.
In 1975, Dame Margaret Guilfoyle made history as the first female Cabinet Minister with portfolio responsibilities in the areas of Education and Social Security.
In 1976, about the time Malcolm Fraser set up the Office for Women, female participation in the workforce was just 44 per cent.
Today under our Government, it is 60.3 per cent.
That is a significant change in Australian society.
In recent times we have had our first female prime minister in the Hon Julia Gillard AC, whose portrait was so stunningly unveiled only last week.
We have had our first female Governor-General in Dame Quentin Bryce.
We currently have the first female Chief Justice of the High Court in Susan Kiefel AC; and women now serve at the most senior levels of our public companies as Chairs and Chief Executive Officers.
And yet it does seem at times, that we get stuck in a feedback loop – where we periodically have to relitigate for those hard won rights and opportunities.
Equal opportunity and equality for women in this country should be more than accepted – we should celebrate it.
After all, when every citizen has a chance to achieve their full potential you have a national recipe for social and economic success.
One of the most important things that Government can do is to get the economic settings right to keep the economy strong and growing, because a growing economy provides the opportunity to create more jobs, and a job is a pathway to financial security.
Jobs and growth was a promise we made at the last election and a promise I’m proud to say we have kept.
Australian women are benefitting from the Government’s strong record of jobs creation.
Of the record 400,000 jobs created last year, more than half went to women. And the majority of those jobs were full time jobs.
In my previous ministerial roles, I have worked to combine my responsibilities in economic portfolios, as Minister for Revenue and Financial Services and now in Jobs and Industrial Relations, together with my responsibilities as Minister for Women.
Which is why I am so interested in economic security.
Of course personal security is always paramount, and our commitment to improving women’s safety and tackling domestic violence is very much our focus along with that of our colleagues in state and territory governments, because we all know that for women affected by violence, personal safety is a fundamental building block for economic engagement.
We aspire though to women not just surviving, but thriving and economic security is essential to that.
As Minister for Revenue and Financial Services I delivered key flexibility measures to improve women’s retirement incomes, such as scrapping restrictions on who can make deductible contributions and allowing catch-up contributions, which are crucial for women who have spent time out of the workforce.
I also put in place the low income superannuation tax offset (LISTO) so that around 1.9 million Australian women won’t pay more in tax on their superannuation contributions than they would otherwise pay on their take-home pay. This saves Australian women around $500 million a year.
I also introduced further reforms to the Parliament that will stop the rorts and rip-offs of low balance accounts which we know are often held by women.
These reforms would automatically see billions of dollars returned to Australian women’s retirement balances and automatically reunite Australian women with their lost superannuation.
Yet we know that many women are not as financially secure as they could or should be.
The causes are complex and cumulative.
We know from multiple data sets, whether it be the census, the intergenerational report or the HILDA survey, that women are living longer than men, they are having fewer babies, they are getting married later, having children later, or quite often not getting married at all.
We need to think about women at different points of their life, in different parts of Australia, and in different circumstances, and then to try to equip them with the tools and support they need to make the best decisions about their future.
We need to think about younger women preparing for the workforce, women coming into the workforce, women coming back into the workforce after looking after young children, and women rebuilding their economic circumstances after a life-changing event such as divorce or the death of a partner.
That’s why our Government is so focused on early interventions so that women can realise opportunities that can have a lasting impact on their lives and their financial security.
This is something that I will speak more about in the first women’s economic security statement that I am delivering next month. It is important to note that there is no one silver bullet, no one-size-fits all response, and a need for all governments and the private sector to work together and commit to the journey, so that progress can be made, and our destination reached.
It is my ambition that the annual women's economic security statement will be the floodlight that is shone on the various issues that underpin women's economic security, and the accountability mechanism by which federal governments of all political colours are held to account in terms of their progress on the journey.
Today I want to touch on two important areas – education and workforce participation.
More women than men in Australia now have a bachelor’s degree or higher education qualification, and this has been the case since 1998. And yet female graduates overall continue to earn less than their male counterparts.
We also know that many of the future jobs will be based on qualifications in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – an area where women are under-represented.
In the 2011 Census, just 16 per cent of STEM graduates were women and in 2017, there were still far fewer women than men studying science, IT and engineering.
Knowing that Australian workers will spend 77% more time using science and maths skills is one of the critical reasons why our Government continues to invest in initiatives to encourage more women to pursue STEM education and careers.
This included A Decadal Plan for Women in STEM, being led by the Australian Academy of Science, which will allow the science sector to take ownership of a comprehensive strategy to reduce the systemic and cultural barriers that prevent women from pursuing STEM careers.
This builds on our commitments in the National Innovation and Science Agenda, which supported the expansion of the Science in Australia Gender Equity Project to make it available to all Australian publicly-funded research organisations; the establishment of the Male Champions of Change for STEM group; and a competitive grants program which is now funding projects in every state and territory, ranging from teaching 5 year olds the joy of coding to supporting women in regional Queensland and NSW to gain the knowledge and confidence to set up and grow their own businesses.
The Government has also committed to providing more opportunities to young Indigenous women by investing $25 million in the future of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls to support a career in STEM.
Young Australian women also have a similar workforce participation rate to their male peers.
But that changes when women reach their mid-20s.
From then on, women’s participation is consistently lower than men’s right up until retirement age. It never recovers.
That’s even more the case for Indigenous women, women from a culturally and linguistically diverse background and women with a disability.
This matters because workforce participation is the bedrock of everyone’s economic security.
While there are more women than ever in full-time employment, women are still the primary caregivers, they still spend more time than men juggling the home, and doing the housework.
Extraordinary as it might seem, this is true even in a household where the woman is the primary income earner.
Many women report that they work flexibly primarily to accommodate caring responsibilities.
Research also shows that women who are highly skilled will take jobs that require less skill in order to access flexibility.
This can have long term impacts on their access to promotions and higher paid roles.
Women often feel they have no choice other than to cut down their work hours, or downgrade their occupation to a more flexible job which may be lower-paying.
Some women end up leaving the workforce entirely because of their caring responsibilities.
By contrast, the percentage of men working part-time has remained virtually unchanged over the past decade.
This is what I call the ‘flexibility gap’.
We want to make workplace flexibility, a normal part of the workplace, at all levels, for men and women. We need to challenge stereotypes by ensuring flexible work becomes the norm for both men and women.
Our Government has taken a significant step towards addressing the biggest barrier to workforce participation for women – affordability and accessibility of childcare.
The new system started in July and is giving more support to families who need it most. It’s more flexible and more affordable.
And yet still, when we talk about the affordability of childcare, it’s often framed in terms of how much of a woman’s income is spent on care and therefore whether it’s worth ‘her’ while to work.
Rarely do we seem to speak about the ‘cost’ to the father or the household budget of childcare. Or about how childcare is an investment in your long term career.
These sorts of measures are important because so often it seems that once you are out, you run the risk of missing out.
Many women who take more than one year out of the workforce to care for their children can find it difficult to return to work at their previous level of remuneration.
Earnings of mothers fall significantly following childbirth, but not for dads.
Believe it or not, the reverse is true for them.
Parenthood is, on average, associated with higher long-term earnings for fathers.
We also know that mothers who have spent time out of the workforce caring for young children are likely to experience loss of confidence, erosion of skills and uncertainty about how to get back into the workforce.
In recognition of this and the importance of a pathway to employment, our Government has expanded a program called ParentsNext and made it national. ParentsNext provides pre-employment support to parents of young children who are on income support to help them build confidence, overcome social isolation and proactively plan for employment, including a return to the workforce.
I am also pleased to see young women getting access to valuable pre-employment training, getting access to work experience opportunities and then securing a job through the Government’s Youth Jobs PaTH initiative.
Similarly, older women’s economic circumstances are more susceptible to negative shocks – such as divorce or the loss of a job. This is why the Government announced a suite of measures in the 2018-19 Budget to help older workers plan ahead to get the most out of the longer lives we can now expect to enjoy.
This includes the introduction of Skills Checkpoint for Older Workers to help people assess their current skills; a $2,000 Skills and Training Incentive to support mature age workers to re-skill and upskill; and the expansion of our Entrepreneurship Facilitators initiative to encourage older workers, including women, into self employment.
We also have Restart, a financial incentive of up to $10,000 to encourage businesses to hire and retain mature age employees who are 50 years of age and over.
Our Entrepreneurship Facilitators program complements the very successful New Enterprise Incentive Scheme which has helped over 150,000 people into self employment in its 30 years of operation.
Half of all participants in NEIS are women.
I recently met an inspiring woman who started her own business during a period of unemployment. With determination and drive, and the support of her local NEIS provider, Mary Jane Gibbs’ business, Waxiwraps, is thriving. Mary Jane is now improving the financial security of others as a small business owner and employer in Albany, Western Australia.
I was honoured to present Mary Jane with an award for Best New Business at the National NEIS Awards earlier this month.
We know that the nature of work is changing and will continue to change into the future. As a Government we must provide people with the opportunity to make informed decisions about their future work opportunities.
That is why we are developing the Skills Transferability Tool which will help workers to take stock of the skills they currently possess and match those skills to a variety of careers, including what training may be available to bridge the gap between the skills they currently have and the skills they need to achieve the job they aspire too.
But it is not just Government and individuals who have a role to play here. Industry is also a critical piece of the puzzle.
Employers need to give older women a go.
They need to give women returning to the workplace a go.
They need to consider work life balance and flexibility in designing roles.
They need to encourage men to work flexibly so that they can take on more of the caring responsibility.
They need to recognise the important contribution women make to the workforce, and the importance of diversity in the workplace.
The Government recognises that the most important thing we can do to turn around a person’s life is to get them into a job.
It is the best means of achieving financial and economic security, now and in the future.
The benefits go beyond the clear financial rewards and into areas such as health, social connectedness, psychological wellbeing and intergenerational effects.
And of course, having a job is the best way to reduce inequality.
Since we came into government in September 2013, more than 1.1 million jobs have been created.
As Minister for Jobs I want these opportunities to be shared by all Australians.
This means jobs in both our cities and in our regions. Jobs for our young people. Or for parents, returning to the workforce after caring for young children, particularly women.
It means continued work for older Australians so they can enjoy the benefits of living longer, healthier lives.
It means jobs for those that have never been given a go before.
As Minister for Women, I am proud of our successes and achievements in this country over the past few decades.
I am also very proud of the advances we have made during this Government, in terms of giving millions of women opportunities to advance their economic security and those of their families.
But I am also cognisant that we always have more to do.
Our pursuit for equality of opportunity is not simply a goal for women or to even up the statistics.
It should be a goal for our country because if we are using all of our people to their full potential, and we are giving everyone the opportunities they seek, we will all benefit.
We will be setting our nation up for a bright future, for our children and our children’s children.