Guilt & Gratitude

Posted: Thursday 09 March, 2017

How do women balance work and family and, at the end of it, still have enough to retire on, asks Sarah Saunders.

My daughter was nine months old when I returned to work.

The taxi driver listened quietly as, tears running down my cheeks, I explained it was the first night away from her.

I felt guilty.

Guilty that I wasn’t there. Guilty that my partner had to call in sick. Guilty that I wasn’t putting in the same hours as before. Guilty that the rest of the team was having to fill the void. Guilty that, later, at 18 months, I would entrust her to the care of strangers each morning.

Guilty, really, that I’d chosen a career over my child.

But I was also lucky.

Lucky that I was initially able to return to work part time. Lucky that my employer thought writing emails in the playground was okay. Lucky that my partner could reduce to four days. Lucky that my mum would do the two-hour drive down the coast to us. And, later, lucky that other parents could share the school drops.

Lucky, as Hillary Clinton would say, that the village had rallied around to help raise my child.

Lucky, too, that I was able to step back onto the career carousel where I had stepped off, with those nine months registering only slightly on my retirement savings.

Not so lucky are the millions of women for whom time out of the workforce to have children or provide care will decimate their superannuation.

Mothers, daughters and sisters disproportionately provide care within families - mothers with young children, daughters with ageing parents, grandmothers with grandkids, or for the ‘sandwich generation’ a combination of two.

Tax office data crunched by Industry Super shows that, against men of the same age, the superannuation balances of women drop sharply in their 30s and 40s - presumably when they first have children.

The UNSW Social Policy Research Centre has discovered that later, as grandmothers, many women will reduce their hours of paid employment to care for grandkids, so their daughters can return to work.  

It’s quite clear that Australia’s earnings-linked superannuation system does little to accommodate these so-called ‘interrupted’, but really quite typical, modern day work patterns.

A persistent gender wage gap, hovering between 15 and 19 per cent for the past two decades, makes it worse.

The ABS puts the average at-retirement superannuation balance for a woman today at $180,000; for a man it’s $322,000 or almost double. And women live longer than men.

Particularly vulnerable are single older women, either divorced or never married, forced to face the vagaries of the rental market. Around 40 per cent live in poverty.

The economic security of women, particularly as they age, will take new thinking, smart policies and a life course approach.

It’s a challenge for the entire nation.

We need employers who offer flexibility, equal pay and family leave; a government whose tax structures and social policies are seen through the lens of equality; and a society that refuses to accept the feminisation of poverty.

The government can set the bar by enshrining ‘dignity’ and ‘security’ for all Australians in the objective of superannuation.

Already showing the way are employers who, on their own initiative, offer female employees clear career pathways; flexible hours; and superannuation-linked family leave provisions.

The better targeting of generous tax concessions away from high earners to those most in need, is also commendable. From July, people with incomes up to $37,000 can receive an extra 15 per cent in super, capped at $500. But this new Low Income Super Tax Offset initiative could, and should, go further.

Less positive are the recent Age Pension changes. Estimates suggest around one third of women now aged 25 to 29, who would have achieved a comfortable living standard in retirement, will no longer do so.

Requiring more thought are the proposed Sunday penalty rate cuts to full and part time hospitality, fast food, retail and pharmacy employees. Worryingly, 46 per cent of all women work part time.

No one can legislate away that feeling of waving goodbye to your child for the first time.

But good policies can make the interplays of work and life easier.

This piece first ran in the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Money’ section on International Women’s Day.