How Australia stacks up on Women’s rights

How Australia stacks up on Women’s rights

By Dear Molly

As the lucky country, Australia has a pretty interesting history when it comes to women’s rights. In some instances we’ve led the way, pioneering improved gender equality and providing women a voice.

In other areas, we lag behind, and even as we speak, we are actually going backwards.

So how does Australia stack up when it come to women’s rights and where on that report card is there room for improvement?

The right to vote

Australia got off to a pretty good start when it came to recognising gender equality and giving women the right to vote.

In fact, Australia was only the second country in the world (after New Zealand) to give women the right to vote in 1902.

That wasn’t all women, however. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women had to wait a further 60 years for that same right.

Elected representatives

We’ve only had one female Prime Minister so far, but Australian women (with the notable exception of indigenous Australian women) were the first in the world to be ‘granted’ the right to be elected into government.

That also happened in 1902, but it took 19 years for a woman to actually take on a role as an elected representative.

The honour goes to Edith Cowan, who was voted into the Legislative Assembly of Western Australia in 1921 and now graces the nation’s $50 note.

Women in the workforce

In our grandmother’s day it was likely you worked until you were married and then took on the mantle of ‘homemaker’. A lot has changed in the years since the 1950s, and much of it was spurred on by the employment landscape of WWII.

In 1942, for example, a shortage of manpower saw women required to work outside the home if they did not have the primary responsibility of caring for others. By 1944, that meant women formed almost 25 per cent of the workforce.

After the war, things reverted back to traditional gender workforce divides for a while. In fact, well into the 1950s and even ‘60s, women were forced to resign from public sector roles once they got married.

By the 1970s, however, state and territory governments were beginning to enact anti-discrimination legislation, leading to a spike in the number of women entering the workforce.

Now, women comprise 47.1 per cent of Australia’s workforce, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a level playing field.

Women are far more likely to be employed part time than men, and the wage gap between women and men remains 14 per cent.

Paid parental leave

Time off to raise a family is considered one of the biggest barriers to women in Australia’s workforce, and our country doesn’t have the greatest track record on things like paid parental leave.

In fact, as Parents at Work founder Emma Walsh told Radio National in 2019 we have “one of the least generous paid parental leave schemes amongst all OECD nations”.

That claims holds up under scrutiny, with RMIT ABC fact checkers noting the average length of paid parental leave among OECD countries is around 55 weeks, while Australia's system offers 18 weeks, according to OECD data.

And, unlike the majority of the 36 members of the OECD, Australia provides a flat rate rather than a replacement wage.

The Tampon Tax

Ok, this one might seem minor in relation to pay equality and the right to vote, but it is a symbolic issue for women.

A tax applied to women’s sanitary products indicates these items are a luxury, and as most women will attest, that’s simply not the case.

Kenya became the first country to abolish the tampon tax in 2004, but it took Australia a further 14 years to do the same.

That’s not quite as bad as Britain however, who only removed the tax on sanitary products on January 1 this year.

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