The most significant developments in women’s economic progress for 2018 weren’t made by companies or even government, they were made by Australian women.
The number of women working full-time surpassed 3.21 million for first time ever this December quarter. This is about 200,000 better than at the start of 2017, and has likely been driven by a combination of cost of living pressures but more importantly greater opportunities and an extraordinary element of social empowerment.
In addition, more women than men are pursing educational qualifications beyond high school (55% v 45%), with the fastest tertiary enrolment growth in fields linked to higher paying career pathways.
However the rate of progress in educational attainment is not being matched in the labour force, which suggests that a lot more work is needed at a business and society level to address the long-standing imbalances that have been holding women back.
Both of these developments come during a global movement for women, which reached a tipping point with the social media hastag #MeToo in late 2017, in a demonstration of the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, particularly in the workforce.
The movement has energised debate around women’s economic security and workplace gender diversity in 2018.
In particular, headlines like “boardroom gender wars” emerged early in the year and debate raged over sexism and leadership governance as the Royal Banking Commission led to the resignation of AMP Chair Catherine Brenner and other female directors at the company.
This disruption did little to derail a push by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) for 30% female representation on ASX 200 boards by the end of 2018. That target is now close to being achieved.
This brings me back to the record number of women at work, which combined with more women in leadership, pushed the national gender pay gap to a 20-year low of 14.6% this year.
The pay gap and gender diversity became heightened political issues in the first half of 2018 as the Federal Opposition vowed to put more women into senior public positions, deliver actions on pay equality and axe the goods and services tax (GST) on tampon if elected in 2019.
The Federal Government responded in August by moving to abolish the tampon tax and in November, it put women’s economic security on the agenda with the release of the Women’s Economic Security Statement and $109 million in funding initiatives.
In it there is a distinct focus on domestic violence victims and helping them achieve financial independence, as well as measures to boost workforce participation rates beyond current record highs and help support more women in business.
Overall 2018 has been a pivotal year for progressing the financial wellbeing of Australian women and recognising the economic disadvantages many face. The challenge now lies in keeping that momentum going through actions in 2019.