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Australian women facing grim retirement due to gender pay gap

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  Published: 08 Mar 2018

The gender pay gap is resulting in a growing number of Australian women not having enough money to retire comfortably.

Australia has a very real issue in gender pay gap and the impact it has on women in retirement. In November last year, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) released Australia’s Gender Equality Scorecard, and it wasn’t pretty.

The WGEA scorecard showed that full-time working women earn a base salary that is about 18% less, and a total remuneration that is more than 22% less, than full-time working men. This equates to a significant gender pay gap with men taking home more than $26,000 on average per year than women. Add that up over a working lifetime and the figures are rather scary.

Indeed, the pay gap translates into superannuation and retirement savings, with women retiring with almost half as much in superannuation than men, leaving them at much greater risk of poverty and homelessness.

A report released last year by the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia (ASFA) showed that average superannuation balances at the time of retirement (assumed to be age 60 to 64) in 2015-2016 were $270,710 for men and $157,050 for women – a difference of about $114,000. And while these figures are up on the previous two years’ figures, they fall well short of the $545,000 [as per ASFA guidelines] needed for a comfortable retirement for a single person.

“It is estimated that more than 40% of older single women live in poverty. How much longer do we allow this to continue when we know the data and the statistics?” asks Sandra Buckley, Executive Officer at national advocacy group Women In Super.

Buckley also points to statistics which show that the fastest growing cohort of homeless people is older single women, and that women are more dependent on the Age Pension than men. Clearly, the superannuation picture is looking anything but super for women.

Given that women also live longer than men, on average, it is imperative that women have enough money to retire on comfortably. That means earning equal pay, among other things. And it’s not just an issue for women, but society as a whole and the economy. After all, improving the financial security of women in retirement reduces women’s fiscal reliance on the government, partners and other family members.

The national gender pay gap has hovered between 15% and 19% for the past two decades. It’s not new, so why, in 2018, are women still in this bleak financial situation?

Industry Super Australia’s head of consumer advocacy, Sarah Saunders, says the factors are complex, and there is no silver bullet.

“Superannuation is earnings-linked, and women comprise two-thirds of Australia’s army of unpaid carers. Time out of the workforce to care for children, ageing parents and then, later, grandkids has a big impact on retirement savings,” says Saunders.

That many traditional female-dominated industries – such as nursing and teaching – are undervalued and paid less than more traditional male-dominated industries, is also an issue.

Largely this comes back to the fact that culturally we don’t value the work women do as highly as we value the work men do.

WGEA spokesperson Jackie Woods agrees: “It seems to be very common in Australia that we have the male breadwinner model where the woman takes the more secondary earning role and is more likely to work part-time.

“While we don’t have to always see this in negative way as a lot of women want to spend time with their children when they are young and want to structure their working life in a way that allows them to have time at home. The issue is that there is a very big financial cost that comes with this – this is what needs to be addressed.”

As well as women’s disproportionate share of unpaid caring and domestic work, WGEA cites a number of other factors that contribute to the gender pay gap, including discrimination and bias, under-representation in senior roles, lack of workplace flexibility and greater time out of the workforce.

 “It’s also due to the different jobs that men and women gravitate towards – we call it ‘industry and occupation segregation’,” says Jackie Woods, WGEA spokesperson. “Our most male-dominated industry is mining, while health care and social assistance is female-dominated. You can guess which attracts much higher pay… not health care. Also when we look at occupational categories, men dominate manager and senior manager ranks, which is where we see really big pay gaps.

“Australia does have quite a highly segregated workforce in terms of industries and occupations that women and men go into. How we break down that segregation is an important part of this conversation.”

Woods also points out that the data and statistics above are based on full-time employees, and women currently make up more than 71% of all part-time employees.

“The current superannuation system assumes a 40-year continuous work history to accumulate sufficient funds to live comfortably in retirement,” she says. “However, this is more often the experience of men rather than women, who take breaks from paid work to have children and take on unpaid caring roles for sick and elderly family members.

“As a result, women are much more likely than men to be working part-time and casually and that really has a double knock-on effect because to get that flexibility of part-time hours, women are often taking on a role that’s lower than their skills and experience are suitable for. It’s also usually lower paid and means they’re earning less money for which they can accrue superannuation.”

One obvious step for government here, says Saunders, is to scrap the $450 monthly earnings threshold which ASFA estimates sees 220,000 women working casual, contract or part-time jobs miss out on super.

“The rapid rise of the gig economy has pretty much rendered the threshold obsolete already,” says Saunders. “Removing it entirely will allow women working reduced hours to build a bit more superannuation, while future-proofing the system as a whole”.

The growing concern around gender pay gap and gender superannuation gap prompted the WGEA to submit a report, along with possible solutions, to the Senate Inquiry into Economic Security for Women in Retirement in November 2015.

The submission noted that women are more likely to re-enter the workforce following retirement due to financial constraints, are twice as likely as men to sell their house and move to lower cost accommodation because of financial circumstances in retirement, and have a higher life expectancy than men, worsening the impact of the retirement superannuation gap.

The submission also included possible solutions to address the gender pay gap, citing that employers can “play a key role by providing women with access to the workforce, incentives to encourage retention, and opportunities to progress up the management pipeline. Our research suggests that this can be achieved through developing and implementing company-wide strategies and initiatives such as flexible working arrangements, paid parental leave, and making additional contributions to superannuation to reduce the gender pay gap.”

The good news is the shift in the financial landscape is starting to happen, albeit slowly, with a growing number of employers starting to focus on the issue of gender equality.

“More employers than ever are prioritising gender pay equity as a business imperative,” said Director Libby Lyons in WGEA’s Australia’s Gender Equality Scorecard. “There has been a substantial increase in employers adopting targeted strategies to support gender equality in areas such as succession planning, retention and promotion. More employers report having key performance indicators for managers linked to gender equality outcomes.”

Lyons went on to say that while this progress is positive, there is still much more to be done to reach gender pay equality in Australia.

Originally published by The Guardian on 8 March 2018. The information referred to may change from the date of publication and care should be taken when relying on such information.

*The above material, whilst correct at the time of publication may include references or statements which are no longer current.

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