Mavis Robertson Address to the Conference of Major Superannuation Funds 2016

3.20pm | November 29, 2016

Mavis Robertson Address

Gender Blind Doesn’t Mean Gender Neutral

I’d like to start by acknowledging that we meet on the traditional lands of the Kaurna people. I pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

I would like to acknowledge the family of Mavis Robertson – it is a great honour to give the address which bears her name.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the super sector itself and all of you. Your sector has more than played its part in elevating women’s interests and advancing women. Super funds have seen women in senior roles, often well in advance of other industries. Trail blazers like Mavis helped make sure there was a place for women at all levels of the industry, and ensured there were bodies like Women in Super which could actively consider and promote women’s distinct interests.

More broadly, from the very beginning your sector has played an incredibly important role in broadening the national conversation about retirement, for both men and women. And this contribution isn’t just historical. I’ve seen it firsthand through my role chairing the Senate’s inquiry into Economic Security for Women in Retirement. I’ve been impressed and grateful for the thorough and well researched contributions that have been made to the inquiry by the sector.

The challenge we face

I want to talk to you today about some of the lessons learned from that inquiry, but more than that I want to talk to you about change, both past and future. There has been a huge shift in attitudes towards women’s economic welfare in the last thirty years. Most of us want women to succeed. I want to talk about how we can use that good will to help improve outcomes for women in the next thirty years.

So many things in the super sector actually started Mavis, so it pays for us to start there too.

The superannuation sector may have seemed a long way from the anti-war and anti-apartheid causes which had caught her imagination as a young person.  But for Mavis, super was something more than a financial product.  In her own words : Superannuation is no longer a prerogative of the rich; it’s a right, no longer a privilege”.

From the early 1980s, Mavis poured her passion into the fledgling superannuation sector. She was instrumental in the founding of Cbus. She initiated the Conference of Major Superannuation Funds, and was instrumental in establishing programs to develop the capabilities of super trustees. Importantly, for today’s topic, she also initiated Women in Super.

None of this would have been easy. In fact, I think it would have been very hard. As a woman active in both the union movement and the finance sector in the 1980s, I can only imagine Mavis must have been one tough cookie.  The adjective most commonly used about her is ‘fierce’, and one suspects this was the only way through for a woman who inhabited a world overwhelmingly run by men.

Now, that world has changed. Mavis would not have had as receptive or open an audience as I have today, if she was to talk about women’s economic outcomes way back in 1984.  We’ve seen a seismic shift in attitudes in my lifetime. Both men and women now value women’s equality in a way that would have been either inconceivable to many a generation ago.

Despite this, however, outcomes for women haven’t kept pace with attitudes. Australian women are still economically worse off than men. Women earn less than men – on average $284.20 less per week. And they own less than men – women retire with half the superannuation balances of men, and it is estimated that 38.7% of single women will retire in poverty.

The situation isn’t getting better. It’s getting worse. The gender pay gap has grown steadily for years. Women today are earning less on average relative to men than they were 20 years ago.            

The Solution: gender analysis

There is a solution.

We need to make sure that when governments are making economic policy, we analyse how these policies affect women. It sounds simple, but we don’t do this as a matter of course at the moment.

There is an old children’s book about a frog. This is a frog who throws a dinner party for his large and charming group of animal friends. After all day in the kitchen, we reach the climax of the dinner itself, where a table of cutely drawn squirrels, owls and rabbits are left staring in disbelief at the plates of flies served to them by the beaming frog.

There are obviously limits to the morals we can draw from this story – you can only be expected to do so much for fussy dinner guests. It does speak to a fundamental truth, however - if you don’t pay attention to the differences in how people live, you run the risk of serving them a plate of flies.

The proposition I want to put to you today is that, like the frog, we are not paying attention to difference. Men and women have different economic interests. Our policies in a range of areas don’t account for this.

I want to put forward two quite specific changes:

  1. When major policies go before cabinet, they should include a separate gender analysis of their effect.
  2. We should reintroduce Women’s Budget Statements. We used to have them - they were introduced by the Hawke/Keating government, but were gutted by Mr Howard before being entirely abolished by Mr Abbott. In their day, however, they set out the impact of the budget as a whole on women.

The reason I think this makes a difference is because policy makers are oblivious, not malicious. Men and women have very different economic interests, and we simply are not aware enough of how these interests interact with different policies. I’ll explain in more detail in a moment, but women work, save, invest, spend and live differently from men.  Because of this, policies that don’t take into account the different economic lives of women run the risk of producing inferior outcomes for women, and that is what I think has happened in some parts of our taxation and retirement systems. Just because our policies are gender blind, doesn’t mean that they’re gender neutral.

Different economic lives of men and women

So what are the different economic lives of men and women? In 1960, the most popular baby girls’ name in Australia was Mary. So let’s look at our hypothetical average Mary.

Mary married David, which was the most popular boys’ name in 1960. She took a couple years out of work for each of her 1.93 children. Like 46% of working women, she works part time. Industries in Australia are heavily divided by gender, so she probably works in a low paid industry like retail, health care, services or education. Even if she is working in a relatively mixed industry like finance, occupations are heavily divided by gender, so she probably has a lower paying, feminised job.

Mary does more of the housework, and when Mary’s parents get older she picks up the responsibility of caring for them, and also helps when David’s parents get sick. She has some limited super, but like most women has selected lower yielding but less risky investments. She has a different pattern of spending from David – she spends more on health care, for instance.

Looking at Mary we can see that she has a completely different economic footprint from David as a worker, investor, consumer and family member. What this means is that it is not just the so-called “women’s issues” like child care and parental leave that can have an oversized impact on women. Instead, our general policies have the ability to produce very different outcomes between men and women.

Retirement policy

Retirement policy is a perfect example of this. My senate inquiry has been looking at women’s retirement, and we have heard a lot of thoughtful analysis from academics, from industry, and from women and those who represent their interests like unions and advocacy groups. I imagine that many of you are keen to know what the inquiry will be recommending, but I’m afraid I will have to keep you waiting a bit longer.

What I can share today, though, are some of the lessons I have personally taken away from the evidence given to that inquiry.

It’s been impressed on me by countless witnesses is that superannuation works best if you are working full time, earning at or above the average wage, without interruptions for your whole adult life. Well, that may be David, but that’s definitely not Mary. This is what leads to the now notorious statistic, that men retire with on average double the superannuation balances of women. It also helps that they get double the assistance from the government - twice the amount of superannuation tax concessions from government flow to men than to women, despite women clearly needing the most financial support. There are some things we can do to make super work better for women. Labor has committed to curbing some of these excesses by tackling the generous tax concessions that flow to (mostly male) high income earners. We also recognise the need to do something to assist very low income earners.

The testimony has also underlined for me the importance of maintaining the old age pension. Unlike superannuation, the old age pension has the capacity to guarantee a decent standard of retirement, regardless of someone’s income throughout their life. It seems to be more suited to many women’s situations – it is able to recognise the lifetime of unpaid work that women provide to their families and communities.

Our retirement system needs to be tweaked if we want it to work for women the way it works for men. The first step, though, is this conversation. The senate inquiry process has highlighted the value of taking the time to look at the gender impact of policies, because often when we look, they are not as equal as they seem. Retirement is not the only policy area which needs this treatment, however. In so many policy areas we are flying blind on gender, which means our gender neutral policies are in effect anything but.


There has been a national conversation about tax reform. We have heard policies from politicians and interest groups. What we haven’t heard is a gender analysis of these ideas. Which is a shame, because a lot of these proposals have gendered effects.

Take the GST for example. We know that women earn less than men. As a result, women spend a greater portion of their income on goods and services. This means that the amount paid in GST is a higher proportion of women’s incomes than men’s. Increases to the GST would thus fall more heavily on women than on men.

It’s also been argued that we should increase the GST to help pay for income tax cuts. We see the same gendered effect when we look here. Again, the key fact is that women earn less than men. Women make up more than half of the bottom 10% of income earners, and less than a quarter of the top 10%. What that means is that unless they are carefully designed, income tax cuts are more likely to benefit men than women.

And this is what we see when we look at the past decade of tax cuts. The Australia Institute has calculated that women enjoyed only a 32 per cent share of the income tax cuts dealt out since 2005. Of the $169 billion handed back to workers, $115 billion went to men, and $54 billion to women.

It’s been argued that we need to address bracket creep to combat increasingly high effective marginal tax rates for upper income earners. However, the highest effective marginal tax rates are actually paid by women. Women are often the second income earners in families. Our tax system penalises women when they go back to work after having children. Families lose the Family Tax Benefits when women go back to work. This can mean that, after accounting for the cost of childcare, these women are worse off working than not working. It is as though some women are paying to keep their careers going. Some women are not prepared to make that sacrifice, and so we see a corresponding drop in workforce participation for mothers.

There is nothing inherently discriminatory about taxation policy – it applies to all Australian workers. But it does not apply equally.  Australia’s taxation system does not work for women the way it works for men. Gender analysis as part of the budget and as part of the policy process would bring these inequalities to our attention. If we do not take account of these differences, then women will continue to go backwards.

Gender analysis plus?

This is why I think that gender analysis needs to have a permanent place in the way that we make big policy decisions in this country. This does not mean that every single policy has to favour women over men. It doesn’t even mean that most policies have to favour women. It simply makes us accountable. There may be good policy reasons why a particular budget is over all detrimental to women, but having a women’s budget statement would force governments to at least explain why this is the case.

It is not enough, however.

It is not enough to have men make decisions for women, even if they are making them with gender analysis in front of them.

Part of the answer has to be having more women in the room. We know that having female decision makers increases the chances of distinct female interests being noticed and taken into account.

One of the best examples is the development of paid parental leave under the former Labor government.

Prior to 2011, Australia was one of only two OECD nations without a national paid parental leave scheme. Having women in the room like Julia Gilliard, the indefatigable Jenny Macklin, Penny Wong and Tanya Plibersek made a real difference to getting results.

We have to have women responsible for actually making economic decisions - I’m talking about more Penny Wong as Finance Minister, and yes, more Kelly O’Dwyer as Assistant Treasurer. We also need more women doing the preliminary economic thinking that goes into making policy. I’m not just talking about female cabinet ministers here – instead I’m talking about having senior women in places like the productivity commission and treasury. Less than 40% of economics post-graduate students are women. By the time you get to the upper echelons of serious economic decision makers that percentage drops much further. Just 1 of the top 7 RBA officials is a woman. Treasury does not have any women amongst its most senior public servants. Having more female economists is not just about having a more diverse workforce – it changes the nature of the analysis. A recent survey has shown that an economist’s gender has a significant effect on their views about minimum wages, health policy and labour standards. Policy is not plucked from the ether – it arises from the careful work done by people in place like treasury and think tanks. Having more female economists would mean having more female conscious policy proposals in the public debate.

We have come a long way since Mavis’ heyday. Then, half the population thought women’s economic equality was an important issue. Now, we all do. We have so much good will, we need to make sure we don’t squander it. And at the moment, we are delivering substandard outcomes to women because we often don’t realise the effect our policies are having on women. Gender blind does not mean gender neutral. Let’s take the blinkers off, and make gender analysis and female decision makers a permanent part of our policy process.