Over the past year mainstream media reports have consistently told us that Australians have never had it so good. Even the arch-conservative, former Treasurer, Peter Costello described Australia’s economic growth as “remarkable”; a rare accolade indeed. Productivity has been consistently high, unemployment low and federal coffers overflowing with surplus.
Added to this, in 2006, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report described Australia as “leaders in closing the gender gap”. Based on the WEF Gender Gap Index data, Australia achieved a rank of 15, out of 115 countries, and a score of 0.716 (1=equality). It seemed that Australia women had not only reached OZ but had successfully engineered a take over bid.
But, just as Dorothy found that all in OZ was not well, many women in Australia have wondered what has happened to their share of the rewards. In a land of such prosperity how is it that women in full-time work continue to earn, on average, 16 per cent less than men (in Western Australia its 27 per cent less)?
And, while increasing numbers of women participate in the labour market and higher education, how is it that they have come to dominate in insecure, low paid jobs? Is Australia really closing the “gender gap” or is the praise under-investigated and short-sighted?
What the WEF report highlights is that any claims of closing the gender gap, when women continue to earn significantly less than their male counterparts and dominate low paid, precarious jobs, demands closer analysis. In particular, this essay focuses on the Economic Participation and Opportunity index used by the WEF to measure the gender gap, examining the three specific areas which constitute the index: the participation gap; the remuneration gap and the advancement gap.
Australia is now a nation of dual-breadwinner households, although women continue to be positioned as second or marginal income earners and responsible for family-care roles.
While orthodox economists and neo-liberals consistently point to women’s “choices” as the primary reason for the gender wage gap, a closer analysis shows that the dominance of normative gender discourses in policy making and research, particularly in relation to care-giving responsibilities, plays a significant role in shaping women’s and men’s choices.
At a time when other western countries are integrating gender into the policy development process and adopting programs to monitor women’s labour market outcomes, Australia appears to be moving in the opposite direction. Compared to the 1970s and 1980s, the climate within which gender equality is pursued today is significantly chillier.
The benefits of affirmative action policies and feminist strategies of this era are now distant memories for many women, including Aboriginal women, women who identify as lesbian and women living with a disability remain marginalised within the labour market. Australia’s earlier commitment to feminism and gender equality has been sacrificed in the pursuit of economic growth, which in turn, threatens future convergence in men’s and women’s economic opportunities.
The participation gap
Recent years have seen strong growth in the Australian female labour force participation rate and a corresponding convergence in the female-male participation gap. This performance has afforded Australia the rank of 30 (out of 80 countries) in the WEF (2006) report of labour market participation. However, this positive trend in women’s employment must be considered in the context of shifting discourses of gender and the changing financial needs of individuals and households.
The Howard government’s reform agenda, particularly the widespread reforms to industrial relations and tightening of the welfare-to-work criteria, have also had specific implications for women’s labour market participation.
The pressure on people in receipt of Centrelink payments to undertake work of any sort, alongside the work-requirements for single parents (the majority of whom are women) while contributing to women’s labour market participation, pose a significant threat to gender equality.
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