Australian women are worth the investment

By Eve Bodsworth, Research and Policy Manager, Brotherhood of St Lawrence

Eve Bodsworth

While Australia has experienced a decade of economic growth, the divide between included and excluded is growing. While it is recognised that gender equality and the inclusion of women facing disadvantage can promote economic  growth – for the converse to be true, for economic growth to promote gender equality – policy leadership and social investment is required. As the President of the World Bank recently commented:

One motivation for women’s empowerment is basic fairness and decency. Young girls should have the exact same opportunities that boys do to lead full and productive lives. But second, the empowerment of women is smart economics … studies show that investments in women yield large social and economic returns.

The Brotherhood of St Laurence seeks to ensure that all individuals have the opportunity to participate meaningfully in different forms of paid and unpaid work, education and family life, and to share in Australia’s ongoing economic growth. Such an approach recognises women’s contributions made outside the market and enables their broader economic participation. ‘Inclusive growth’ also requires recognition that particular groups of women, such as those from refugee and migrant backgrounds, Indigenous women, single women (particularly older women and those with children), carers and those with a disability face additional challenges in achieving economic security.

Understanding disadvantage

Gender and care profoundly shape the experiences of disadvantage in Australia. Yet, while being female increases your likelihood of experiencing poverty and disadvantage over the life-course – many women experience multiple and intersecting forms of disadvantage. Further, the experience of poverty is not only about income. The Brotherhood’s social exclusion monitor, based on a multidimensional approach to poverty, tells us that:

  • The incidence of marginal and deep exclusion is higher for women than men;
  • Almost 50 per cent of people over 65 experience exclusion;
  • Immigrants, especially those from non-English speaking countries, are more likely to experience social exclusion than native-born Australians;
  • Forty per cent of Indigenous Australians experience social exclusion;
  • More than 50 per cent of Australians with a long-term health condition or disability experience social exclusion, and about 14 per cent are deeply excluded;
  • About 40 per cent of single people and lone parents experience social exclusion.

So, what is needed to overcome disadvantage for women in Australia?

Valuing and sharing care

For truly inclusive growth, women and men must be enabled to move between periods of caring and work, and more easily combine care and work. Encouraging women’s workforce participation will have a positive effect on Australia’s GDP –yet inclusive growth requires policy changes to enable women to better balance their paid work and caring responsibilities. In the absence of flexible working conditions, and policies that value women’s unpaid work, taking time to care can entrench disadvantage. Many women manage caring responsibilities by working part-time (often on a casual basis) or leaving the workforce, with economic consequences in both the short and longer term.  Social exclusion among sole parent families is well documented and many older women face poverty, finding themselves with little or no superannuation due to limited or interrupted workforce participation. Further, current tax, welfare and childcare arrangements are highly regressive: women with lower earning capacities – those most likely to face disadvantage – are more strongly discouraged from work.  They take home a smaller proportion of the money they earn, and a much smaller dollar amount, thus creating disincentives to workforce participation and reducing opportunities later in life.

Recognising women’s strengths

Participation and voice are fundamental to inclusive empowering services. Often women who use social and community services are stereotyped as being ‘passive’ – particularly refugee and migrant women. Women accessing services can face direct and indirect discrimination and lack of recognition and valuing of their skills, knowledge and experiences. The underestimation of women’s abilities may lead to a narrowing of options, loss of confidence and despair.

The Brotherhood’s Stepping Stones program provides an example of a ‘strengths-based, gender aware’ service aiming to promote the social and economic inclusion of refugee and migrant women. The micro-enterprise program starts by recognising the strengths of the participating women:

  • their adaptability and entrepreneurialism – many women involved had created innovative and successful small business, often under difficult circumstances;
  • their resourcefulness – looking after family here and overseas on a low income;
  • their informal and formal education and skills;
  • their links to local communities; and
  • their motivation and determination.

The program seeks to then create ‘enabling conditions’ for the women to complete a small business course and develop their own business. This includes integration of ESL and IT support into the business course delivery; offering flexible, part-time training to accommodate the women’s other work and care responsibilities; enhancing the women’s social and business networks through partnering with Australian business women mentors and providing support to access tailored micro-finance. So far the program has enabled 43.5% of participants to start a small business; provided participants with skills for business development and planning, knowledge of Australian regulatory systems and confidence to their pursue goals.

This case study highlights what can be achieved by women experiencing disadvantage when provided with the right support. In contrast, many of the Stepping Stones women would have been excluded from mainstream small business training for income support due to lack of language support and accommodation of their caring, learning or earning commitments. Many also had negative experiences of mainstream employment services and training providers that had failed to meet their needs or provide a pathway to secure employment.

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