Women's struggle for equality: far from over

February 28, 2009

The right to equal pay for work of equal value was won for women in Australia in 1972, but this has not meant that women's wages today equal those of men. The 2008 federal parliamentary inquiry into women's wages revealed that, on average, Australian women earn 12-18% less than their male counterparts.

The inequality in wage level is primarily due to the fact that the employment of women is not spread evenly over all job categories.

In Australia, the sex segregation of women by industry group is one of the highest in the world (the three major areas of employment for women being clerical, sales and services) and women's work in these areas is not valued at an equivalent rate of pay to the work of men in similarly skilled, predominantly male industries.

Despite the growing number of women in the work force, there remains in our society an archaic expectation on women to assume responsibility for domestic roles in addition to their paid work.

Women make up the vast majority of Australia's casualised work force — either because they can't find full-time employment or because they can't otherwise cope with domestic roles in the absence of cheap quality child care.

But casual and part-time work invariably brings with it lower wages, less job security, worse working conditions and less likelihood of unionisation.

International human rights standards require governments to guarantee a minimum of 14 weeks paid maternity leave; Australia provides no such guarantee to Australian women.

At the 2007 federal election, Kevin Rudd said it was time for Australia to set up a maternity leave system, and last year the Productivity Commission was asked to investigate paid maternity leave models. While the final report is yet to be released, recently the government has backed away from its commitment, saying that it cannot guarantee women a universal maternity leave scheme in this year's budget.

The draft proposal, released in September last year, would cost businesses $74 million in superannuation contributions to women on maternity leave. Businesses have argued strongly against such a scheme, claiming it would be a disincentive to employing women in the current economic climate.

The global economic crisis is being used as an excuse not to implement a maternity leave scheme that is well overdue. Along with the United States, Australia is one of only two OECD countries that do not offer a national paid maternity leave scheme. While France offers 16-26 weeks paid maternity leave and Italy has 5 months paid leave, only one third of Australian women have access to any paid maternity leave at all.

Access to paid maternity leave means women have more economic independence, and can pursue careers and participate in full-time work. Currently, many women are forced back to work sooner after giving birth than they would like, because of financial pressures and fear of losing their job.

Abortion rights in Australia remain subject to state law. While abortion is the most common gynaecological procedure, and one of the safest, it remains under the Criminal Act in most states and territories.

Much of Australia's abortion legislation has the potential to criminalise women choosing abortions and threatens the doctors and nurses who perform the procedure. This ambiguous legal status of abortion means that services may be limited, particularly in rural areas.

A small but influential minority wants to deny basic reproductive rights to women in Australia. Anti-choice groups are determined to impose unproven and problematic restrictions like mandatory counselling and "cooling-off" periods.

The criminalisation of abortion affects women's ability to enjoy full equality: abortion law reform should be based on the fundamental right of women to control their own bodies. Unplanned pregnancy is a reality of women's lives — no method of contraception is 100% guaranteed — and women must have freedom over their own fertility.

The women's movement has had a profound impact on Australia, achieving greater democratic rights and broader social opportunities for women, but the struggle for real liberation is far from over.

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