Leaning In… and About to Fall Over

Lean in; crack the ceiling; steal the sandpit.

These catchphrases, riding high on the fourth wave of feminism, sound empowering. But subliminally they’re saying, “Girls, you’re just not trying hard enough”.

(I don’t know about you, but I’m leaning in so far I’m about to fall over!)

And so, today, I sit at my desk – desperate to bang my head on its smooth hard surface – surrounded by studies on the plight of Australian women.


Many, over the age of 50, will end up living in poverty, in the wealthiest country in the world.

Perhaps our Minister for Women can help us out with that? Oh, wait. It’s a man….

Worse still, it’s a man who says, at an International Women’s Day Breakfast, “this nation has smashed just about every glass ceiling”. #headondesk

The Prime Minister is either pathologically out of touch, or being deliberately provocative.

Let us count the ways in which the deal for Australian women is not, to use Tony Abbott’s words, “pretty good” – starting with superannuation.

Because when ACOSS joins the Business Council and the Australian Workers Union to warn the government there won’t be enough money in future to fund the aged pension, you know the writing’s on the wall.

For a graph-heavy document, the MLC Retirement Survey makes for heartbreaking reading.

source: MLC Retirement Survey

It reveals more than a-third of women (36 per cent) say they will have “far from enough money to retire on”.

The reasons are wedged, at intervals, along the rusting pipeline of women’s progress.

Unemployment, ill health, the gender pay gap (cemented at 17 per cent), career breaks to bear children, and reliance on a partner are listed as the major hurdles.

Sadly, those worst affected are women over the age of 50, who’ve worked part-time, raised children, and been divorced.

“If a 50 year old woman wants to retire comfortably in 15 years’ time, she’ll need a nest egg of $600,000,” according to MLC spokesperson, Lara Bourguignon. “But the reality is the average woman at retirement age has just $55,000 in her super fund.”
This has devastating consequences.

The Women and Housing Affordability Survey says there’s a “tsunami” of older single women in housing stress.

Swinburne University fellow Andrea Sharam believes this group is the new face of homelessness, but they are “barely acknowledged”.

As we know, older women are often invisible.

Ms Sharam says women are more likely to self-manage their homelessness by becoming housekeepers, boarding with others, or swapping sex for a place to sleep, so they’re “not being accurately counted in state and national data”.

The Diversity Council of Australia is also calling for better reporting.

After reviewing a range of research on leadership, the DCA concludes the so-called ‘pipeline’ approach, ‘merit-only’ appointments, and blaming women for not ‘leaning in’ enough, don’t work.

“Many of our current leadership models are based on male stereotypes,” DCA’s Programs and Development Director Lisa Annese says.

“As just one example, women’s voice pitch, height, and physical build can interfere with perceptions of their executive presence and authority. But research shows caregivers make better people managers, and women in flexible roles are the most productive employee segment.”

So, what does work? Well, public accountability via reporting on measurable outcomes.

But this has been labelled “nonsense” and “red tape” by economics correspondent Judith Sloan, writing in The Australian.

Sadly, this month, Employment Minister Eric Abetz plans to water down the Workplace Gender Equality Act.

And yet a new survey by Westpac finds most women believe their employers (80 per cent) and male colleagues (79 per cent) don’t fully accept flexible working conditions.

How are we going to change this mindset, without a big legislative stick?

I know these sound like #firstworldproblems compared with the global picture, where women do two-thirds of the work for less than 10 per cent of the wages.

But the International Women’s Day theme of Inspiring Change should be applied to all of our challenges – big and small.

What stands out in Australia is a disconnect between our potential when we’re young, and our outcomes as we age.

Consider this:

  • Female participation in the workforce is at an all-time high at 65 per cent.
  • The number of women out-earning their husbands has tripled in the past five years.
  • In Australia, women are the decision-makers for 90 per cent of household purchases.


  • A 25-year-old woman today will earn almost 50 per cent less over her lifetime than a man of the same age.
  • Women retire with 40 per cent less super than men, as they take time out to care for children and/or elderly parents.
  • One in four women will have little, or no, superannuation at retirement age.

While I’d love the federal government to break down structural discrimination, that ain’t gonna happen. Especially under Tony “housewives doing the ironing” Abbott.

All we can do is support each other – and look after ourselves.

Despite working her whole life, Mum ended up with nothing. Her advice to her daughters, as she lay dying of cancer, is as pertinent today as it was then.

“I want you to be strong, independent women,” she said. “Put something away for yourselves. Because you never know what’s going to happen.”