The limits of formal equality


Despite having won formal equality, the lack of an organised women's movement means that the Howard government has been able to take back a lot of the reforms won as a result of the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s. No reform is permanent under capitalism, and without a strong movement that mobilises to defend and expand reforms to improve women's lives, the capitalist class can easily remove, or knobble, the gains that have been won.

While PM John Howard has taken the axe to women's services, his government has also launched a massive attack on the working class in the form of Work Choices and attacks on welfare. These laws have a worse impact on women because of the nature of women's oppression in the family unit, and the fact that women are overwhelmingly in precarious or low-paid jobs.

Women in Australia won equal pay in 1972, but we still earn less than men. Women and men were meant to be paid equally, but male jobs were reclassified to ensure that women weren't always paid the same for the same job. The gender pay gap appeared to be closing in the 1970s when a handful of strong unions won big gains that flowed onto weaker unions with a predominantly female membership.

In the 1980s, due to several landmark cases in which unions in female-dominated industries fought to have their skills recognised as being equal to the skills of higher-paid male workers in other industries, the pay gap for full-time adult workers was reduced from women's wage averaging 81% of men's to 84%. But after the Keating Labor government introduced enterprise bargaining in 1994, the gender pay gap began to increase again. This trend has sped up since the Howard government introduced individual contracts (AWAs).

Women workers on average earn less than men, even when the effects of part-time employment and men's access to paid overtime are taken into account. In all industry sectors women earn, on average, less than men, with the worst cases being the finance and insurance industries (65%), mining (71%), property and business services (76%) and health (78%). Between 1994 and 2004, the growth in average hourly ordinary-time earnings among full-time adult non-managerial employees was higher for males than females, resulting in a slight widening of the gender wage gap.

Comparing full-time earnings also underestimates the gender gap, as only 56% of female employees work full-time.

There is also growing inequality between the average hourly rates of pay for part-time workers compared to full-time workers. Between 1990 and 1998, the earnings ratio of non-managerial part-time or casual workers declined compared to full-time or permanent employees. The gender gap extends beyond wages to other working conditions: for instance, 31% of women workers compared to 24% of male workers report no access to leave entitlements.

Some cuts to services, such as child care, don't affect all women equally and have more of a class dynamic. Working-class women suffer more from these cuts as they cannot afford to pay high prices for child care, nor can they afford nannies. Wealthy women from regional areas can afford to travel to get an abortion, they can afford the fees for higher education and they can afford to access the legal rights women have won, whereas poor women often cannot.

The cost of child care has increased by 91% over the last decade (while wages certainly haven't), and health care by 50%. Meanwhile the consumer price index has only increased by 29.6% because the price of white goods (which you and I don't buy every week) has declined.

The impact of these neoliberal attacks affects the type of demands placed on government. Currently, politicians and some feminists want the Howard government to provide an income tax rebate for child care, something that will not help women on low incomes or those on welfare.

Rather, we should be demanding free education from cradle to grave. This must include free childcare, which should be publicly funded and the places massively increased, and the centres must also cater for shift and casual workers.

A campaign to win real equality would have to challenge the profits-first capitalist system and the sexism it promotes among individual men and women.