The statistics are telling.
- The fastest growing group in Australia becoming homeless are women over the age of 55
- Around 40 per cent of older, single, retired women live in poverty
- Women retire with about half the level of savings as men
- Divorce rates means they are also more likely to end up as renters in retirement (Note 1)
And, say industry experts, Covid just made things worse.
The recent federal government decision scrapping the $450 threshold, where super was not paid to workers if they earned less than that a month, meant that from July, around 300,000 Australians, three-quarters of whom are women, would receive superannuation for the first time, was a step in the right direction according to many commentators but really wasn’t enough to make a systemic change.
Australia’s super system is based on a traditional male model of working, according to SDA national assistant secretary Julia Fox, but things, especially for women, haven’t operated that way for decades. “And, I think it’s been really stark to see how quickly women’s economic security was undermined by Covid,” she added.
According to a report by Per Capita for Women in Super, analysis showed that while more men than women made applications for early release (during Covid in 2020), across all age brackets women withdrew a greater portion of their balance than did men. The impact was most striking for women aged 25 to 34, the report stated.
“Before taking early release, these women had 21 per cent less in super savings on average than did men in the same age bracket. After taking early release these same women had 45 per cent less. The impact of this will be profound for younger women, who will now enter their child-rearing years with a much a lower savings base on which to accumulate interest, during the years when they are less able to make contributions,” according to the report.
And the broader issue goes beyond a dollars and cents argument and crosses the line into the physical wellbeing of older women in society.
“Over the past 12 months, there has been a debate around physical safety and security for women,” Chair of Women in Super’s Policy Committee and Cbus Super’s group executive Robbie Campo said. “And I think we can’t ignore the fact that economic security, including for retired women, is inextricably connected to that issue of physical security because if there’s not the capacity for financial independence, it is a very significant contributing factor especially to situations where women are in physically insecure environments.”
So, the question needs to be asked, why, after 30-odd years of compulsory superannuation are women not only being left so far behind but are also being exposed to risk?
“What often gets missed in this conversation is discrimination,” said Fox, “that is the number one reason for gender inequality. If you had better systems in place to address discrimination, it would lift a lot of the other things up.”
The most apparent discrimination according to Fox is the gender pay gap (which recent estimates put at around 14 per cent overall, in the financial services sector it’s around 31 per cent and within the health system it’s somewhere around 23 per cent.)
Mary Delahunty, managing director of Seven Advisory, an impact advisory firm which she said was designed to help businesses progress with impact and purpose, cited what for her is another glaring issue being the fact that super is not paid on parental leave when it is on most other kinds of leave. “I don’t know what else to call that except for discrimination,” she said.
When quizzed further about the causes behind poor outcomes for women with regard their retirement savings, industry experts seem to agree that it’s not the super system per se that is the biggest problem. Yes, they say, it needs to be adjusted, but what is really behind the poor end result is the fact that the system magnifies an already skewed dynamic.
“Superannuation as a system, just magnifies what happens in working life,” Delahunty said. “It’s a system that’s predicated on time in the workforce, and the amount of money that you earn while you’re in there. So that’s naturally going to have worse outcomes for people who take time out of the workforce, and when you’re in the workforce suffering from a gender pay gap.”
“While it’s a wicked problem, in that it builds on itself… it’s not necessarily all that complex. It’s the way the system was designed [that] just doesn’t reflect a working life that’s experienced by women.”
Where women miss out
There were a number of factors identified that contributed to the problem but for Fox one of the main ones is the unpaid care work many women perform, whether it’s childcare or looking after elderly relatives. She argued there was a compelling case for recognising this unpaid care as an economic indicator.
“So I think you have to recognise that it happens, recognise the contribution it’s making, whether it’s through your social welfare system, because people are providing care to others that doesn’t fall into either the health system or the social welfare system [or] indeed, the tax system,” she said.
In the retail industry she says it’s employers who are largely benefiting from the “free care” that many women are providing. Fox’s argument is that retailers want to operate 24/7 and workers are not able to access the formal care system outside of regular business hours, there is there fore a “care cost”.
In her mind the employer should help top up the super deficit because they get some of the benefit of that.
“You do have some employers doing aspects of it. Woolworths are doing super on parental leave, I think you’ve got NAB who pay an additional one or 2 per cent to women. So there are institutions trying to bridge the gap. There’s opportunities there. There’s various things employers can do. But it is also a whole-of-country approach to how you fix it,” she said.
But it’s not only the time out that women take to have children, it’s the fact that they are likely to come back to work afterwards in a part-time capacity and even then there is a loss of seniority compared with their male counterparts who have not taken a break. Compounding this is the aspect of industry segregation: women are much more highly represented in industries that are lower paid.
“About 43 percent of women in Australia work part time, women working full time earn less than men, as we’ve seen, but women taking time out of the workforce earn even less, it’s not just the time they’ve taken out but when they come back to the workforce, they can’t really catch up to their male counterparts,” Delahunty said.
“It all adds up – the pay gap, the not valuing the caring and then at the end you see this magnification. They are all systemic causes. We need to grow and raise more taxpayers but what we also need is for that to be valued.”
The role of tax
One of the common ways people supercharge their retirement savings is through tax concessions.
According to Campo, The Australia Institute had an interesting statistic pointing to the fact that 72 per cent of tax concessions go to men.
“I think this is because men are more likely to be high income earners and have higher balances,” she said. “Tax concessions on earnings are disproportionately benefiting those at the upper end.”
“The value of tax concessions, in a dollar sense will exceed the cost of the age pension in the next 15 years… that’s quite a staggering figure, then the way in which we are choosing to support retirement income is so skewed to those with high balances. And we cannot ignore that that has profound gendered impact, because women are far more likely to be in the bottom third [of income earners]. When they make a contribution into super, they don’t get any benefit from superannuation tax concessions.”
The solutions aren’t simple and Fox admitted that it was “actually pretty complex” but hasted to add that “lots of things are complex, tax is complex”.
Put on the spot and asked to provide a ‘road map’ she highlighted the below:
- Superannuation on parental leave, paid and unpaid. Parental leave should be accessible to both partners. It would help allow women to be back at work and give [their partners] the opportunity to care for babies.
- Genuine action to top up women’s super. She said: “We seem to be able to do franking credits and all sorts of other things. We do we have capital gains, we have negative gearing, so there’s models in place where people get benefits for things, let’s look at what we can do for women and top them up. There’s ways, whether it’s credits and or just assessments on levels or whatever, but something needs to be done. And I’m sure the brains trusts can figure that out.”
- Super on every dollar for every worker. Probably 12 to 14% of retail workers work multiple jobs, she said… “[they’re] still working 30 hours a week or 40 hours a week, but [they’re] not getting super. So every worker needs to get it, casual, part time, every age group and regardless of where you work. Work is work full stop.”
Delahunty looked to the situation overseas and research she had performed around 2015 and pointed out that then there were only three mature systems in the world like ours that did not have some form of compensatory measure for women taking time out of the workforce.
“Every system had a recognition of the economic role that caring plays except for Australia, Mexico, and Israel,” she said. “The understanding that taking time out of the workforce to care for others, economically benefits the country has not really been prosecuted in this nation. And it is to the great detriment of Australian women.”
She cited the Chilean system which has an architecture much like Australia’s in that there’s a compulsory contribution of about 10 per cent of wages into a private account. On having a child, a woman is paid that amount by the government into their private super account.
“That’s at the time of the birth so that they can still participate in the exponential growth and the compounding effect that may come afterwards from that money,” she said.
Delahunty did admit there are very few places in the world that can claim equitable retirement outcomes for men and women but said there were a lot of other systems that were doing it much better than Australia.
”Where there is very close to equity, it… goes to women’s workforce participation, to the valuing of caring, but also to the pay gap and other areas. So I would look at the Swedish system for that, the Danish system and the Finnish system delivering much more for their working women than we are,” she said.
“It is a complex area. But it does take a philosophical, an almost an ideological approach first, just to say this is about the sort of society we want to live in. And we don’t want to see some of those end results anymore.”
Notes: (1) Australian Human Rights Commission; Women in Super: The Facts About Women in Super
Note: This article first appeared in Investment Magazine October, 2021 and has been updated