Thank you so much for that lovely introduction. I am so pleased to be here with you today. I pay respect to the traditional and original owners of this land – the Muwininar people. I want to pay respect to those that have passed before us and to acknowledge today’s Tasmanian Aboriginal people who are the custodians of this land.
I’m going to speak about the future of Super. I am going to start by going back a bit in time and share with you some of my background my personal story and how I came to be the National Secretary of the Finance Sector Union. You might be surprised to hear that my path was not one that I had planned. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a union leader.
In fact, I don’t know many young people who really have a clear and certain picture of what they want to do. I mean, my youngest daughter, Clara, wants to be a princess and a Doctor. I certainly don’t know of many teenagers who aspire to lead and transform a movement dedicated to protecting and extending conditions of working people. Nor did I follow a typical politically active pathway through my uni days. I wasn’t a member of young Labor, I didn’t grow up in a household with a long history of union activism or politically vocal parents. In fact, quite the opposite.
I grew up in a large Italian family in South-West Sydney. My grandfather was the first to arrive in Australia and his first job was cutting sugar cane in the fields in Ingahm and Innersvail – this was back-braking work. When he had saved enough money, he sent for my grandmother, my mum and her sister. After they settled in Sydney, my mum tells me that she never really saw her parents. They worked double shifts in factories alongside other Italian and Greek migrants in the textile and manufacturing industries. From the day my dad arrived in Australia, he went to work every single day as a bricklayer in difficult and tough conditions.
It was the 1970s and the Builders Labourers Federation had a stronghold on constructions sites. My dad thought they had a bad reputation and I remember he would complain about them. Needless to say, my dad really didn’t understand my motivation to join the trade union movement. I’d say that I had a pretty ordinary working class upbringing and while I wasn’t involved in the movement or the party, I did have a strong sense of social justice.
Women in Super National Roadshow 2019, Brisbane
My world view is shaped by
- my family’s migrant experience;
- the values embedded in my personal faith; and
- the importance of family and community which is rooted in the Italian culture.
It is one very much informed by a person-centric view of fairness, equality and justice for each person. It is really telling that each of my three sisters who find themselves in very different careers and occupations, would say the same thing – they find motivation and great satisfaction in devoting themselves to work that ultimately helps other people. After high school I enrolled at Sydney University to do an Arts Degree, with a major in Economics and can I tell you that those econometrics classes almost did me in. I hated it – the numbers, the charts, the theories. It just didn’t come easily to me. I took an ‘Economics Social Science’ class with the inspiring Professor Frank Stillwell and suddenly things started to make sense.
The discussion of the link between our economic system and the impact on people’s lives really spoke to me and that was the first flicker of what my future would bring. I quickly transferred from the straight Economics degree to the Economics Social Science degree and flourished learning about the intersection between Economics and social justice. I still wasn’t a unionist. While at uni, like most students, I worked part time. My job was at a café and it was there that I met Peter Presdee who was the State Secretary of the Commonwealth Bank Officer’s Section of the FSU – yes that’s a mouthful! Peter’s wife owned the café and one day out of the blue he asked me if I wanted to work for him.
I didn’t really know what that would entail but when he explained the work, it sounded meaningful and I had already decided that I wanted to try and do some work that would make a difference. While I’d like to think I was hired on merit, the reality was he knew he needed to hire more women and his wife knew I had a solid work ethic. I didn’t get the job just because I was a woman. If I wasn’t suited for the role I wouldn’t have been offered the role, but I did fit the bill of being “young, educated and female”. That was 1999. My story isn’t that different for a lot of women of my generation.
Thanks to the work of people like your founder, Mavis Robertson, by the time I finished university in 1999 the doors that were open to women were many and varied. Academics agreed that organisations with a significant proportion of women in leadership roles were more successful. Consultants were advising businesses to hire more women and the Howard Government passed the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act that set up the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency.
All of this happened 25 years after the first “femocrats” were appointed to the bureaucracy and it happened under a Federal Liberal Government.This just goes to show that change may be incremental but it does happen. You know, before I started work at the FSU I thought that working in a bank would be a really good place to work. There’s nothing like working for a union to open your eyes to the realities of capitalism and the pursuit of profit. Some of the early cases I handled were shocking. One of these that sits with me to this day, was the case of a pregnant woman who was working in a call centre. She called to complain that management weren’t allowing her adequate bathroom breaks.
FSU Archive: The 80s
In those days you had to dial 222 to get permission for a bathroom break and the mostly male team leaders had decided to limit these breaks. I imagine that one or two of the women in this room have been pregnant – imagine having a young bloke tell you that you were taking too many toilet breaks while your unborn child is lying on your bladder!
The other case that stands out for me in the early days was a matter involving a woman who was profoundly deaf. She worked in the basement floor of one of the large buildings in the CBD. She called in one day to complain that there had been a fire drill in her building and her colleagues had left her behind. Unfortunately, after 20 years as a union official these cases would not shock me today, but as a woman in my early 20s I was an idealist and I couldn’t believe that the world wasn’t delivering all that it had promised.
I was horrified that at the turn of the century this sort of behaviour was still happening and I’m sorry to tell you that this sort of thing is still going on today. I know that the women I spoke to in the early days shared information with me that they would not have shared with a man, and that Peter was right in his decision to ensure he was developing effective women unionists. This isn’t to say that our workplace was ideal – far from it, the 3 most senior positions were held by men, which was also a reflection of the broader union movement at the time.
My experience in the early years of my union career is not all that different from a lot of women in senior roles today. We moved through the ranks as doors continued to open to women. We were appointed because we were good, clever, hardworking and had leadership qualities – not because we were women.
But the opportunities were there for us that weren’t there a generation earlier. We had good men who understood that there is a collective benefit when the collective is indeed collective, and that meant that they had to employ us, train us, give us opportunities to demonstrate we could compete on merit and then promote us when the opportunities opened up.
For me the opportunities came in my prime child bearing years, and this is where my story differs from a lot of women women who tell me that for them, the opportunities dried up precisely when their career started taking off in their childbearing years. I was in a team leader role when the FSU merged our different divisions. I moved from the State Branch into our National Office as the CBA National Industrial Officer. That’s the job I was doing when I fell pregnant with my first child, Ruby, who was born in 2010. While I was on parental leave a promotional opportunity opened up and I was actively approached and encouraged to take on this role.
Julia with her 3 kids
By the time I fell pregnant with my second child, I had taken on the very demanding role of the NSW/ACT State Secretary of the FSU. I was the first elected official in the FSU to give birth during my term. I did that twice. It was during my third period of parental leave that the FSU’s National Executive approached me to see if I’d be interested in stepping into the role of the FSU National Secretary. It was a decision that the executive had not taken lightly. We had a great team of experienced officials – many who had led our union for decades, and a number of whom could capably lead our union. None of these people were home on parental leave nursing a 6 month old baby.
The executive decided that it was important the National Secretary was a woman. Someone who more closely resembled not only our predominately female membership, but someone who more closely resembled the women in our industry – women who are the future of our union. That meant it had to be someone younger, someone committed and someone who was feisty enough to take it up to the biggest, richest, meanest employers in town.
I am here in front of you today because of the work of Mavis Robertson. As Women in Super celebrate 25 years we remember the women like Mavis who made a significant contribution. I am here in front of you today because of the work of the first femocrats who led the second wave of feminism. Without these women and the work they did to build community support for the principle of equality for women, the doors would still be shut.
Power is not easily wrestled away from those who have it. Sharing is not a key tenet of capitalism. Throughout our history we’ve understood that we need to fight for our working conditions and entitlements. Nothing comes easy and nothing comes for free. I have heard those who are not part of the union movement deride us for our ‘’struggle” in class warfare because it may feel outdated or out of touch with modern and contemporary workplaces.
It was our movement who fought for and won the 8 hour day in the 1850s, who fought for and won the entitlements that we take for granted today:
- sick leave;
- annual leave;
- public holidays; and
- parental leave.
Women in Super National Roadshow 2019, Sydney
These entitlements have underpinned our way of life for a generation and will continue to hold us in good stead for the future. More women than ever before are participating in paid work and the nature of the work has also changed.
We’re seeing an increase in the number of workers who don’t have access to paid leave because they are casual, or contractors or who work in the gig economy. Lots of these workers are women. Women who aren’t getting employer superannuation contributions or who aren’t getting sufficient contributions. I’m here to acknowledge the struggle and pain of generations of women who missed out on the opportunity provided by compulsory superannuation to build their own wealth and assets. Today we’re seeing the results of a system that was set up without the benefit of a gender lens. We’re seeing a generation of women who have worked their entire lives to support their families and now find themselves either dependent on the aged pension or their families to look after them.
Older women experiencing homelessness has risen 31% since 2011. The systemic factors leading to this increase are lower superannuation, unequal pay, and time out of the workforce to raise children according to the report ‘Retiring into Poverty’. These are often women just like my mum, who worked intermittently whilst raising her kids, taking up part time hours where she could find them.
Once all 4 of us girls were older and independent enough, Mum resumed full time work that was more meaningful and also gave her the opportunity to start rebuilding her superannuation. Just as this happened, my grandmother began showing signs of serious ill health which forced my mum to give up work and start caring for her. My mum is part of the “sandwich generation”. She’s a baby boomer who juggles unpaid caring responsibilities for my grandmother, while helping out with school drop offs for me, making sure there is arvo tea waiting for my kids when they get home from school and changing the nappies of our most recent family member to support my sister upon her return to work.
I want to make sure that as the National Secretary of the only independent finance sector union in the world that I’m not simply a figurehead. I have grabbed this opportunity and I’m determined to do my best to break down the barriers that still remain for my three daughters, for you, for your daughters, for your granddaughters and for the generations to come.
I started this job in November 2016. In October 2017 I presided over our union’s biannual National Conference. For the first time in recent history the conference deliberately considered the issues faced by women working in our industry as a stand-alone agenda item and we talked about how we can prioritise this work to improve the working lives of women in our industry.
FSU Rockin’ for Rights March 2007, Sydney
According to WGEA, the finance industry employees 273 038 employees, 55% are women. 16% of workers in the industry work part time and 88% of part time workers are women. 70% of our members are women. Our National Conference is made up of 38 FSU reps, 20 are women. We have 1726 FSU Reps across the country and women make up 74% of our local leaders.
I took to the conference an FSU Women’s Agenda, and the conference signed off on our 3 key priorities to improve work for women in our industry. They are:
- closing the gender pay gap (noting that our industry holds the biggest gender pay gap);
- improving parental leave entitlements for all parents (not just women); and
- improving women’s retirement incomes.
I know that it’s not enough that I’m a woman leading a National Union. Sure, there are benefits to the movement and the FSU simply by having women in key roles, but that’s not enough. I have a debt to pay to the women who started opening those doors, and an obligation to continue their work for those who follow in my footsteps. I need to ensure that my actions are making a difference, not just by being the National Secretary.
The 2nd wave of feminism thought that:
“if women were to enter the political arena in sufficient numbers at a sufficiently high level, the nature of that arena would be radically changed.”
It wasn’t. It is now apparent that “presenteeism” isn’t enough, though it is a good start. Just this year Rainmaker Information published research that shows above-average levels of gender diversity in leadership of Superfunds leads to better outcomes in investment returns. It wasn’t a big improvement – just under 1% – but it was an improvement. We need women in decision-making roles to bring our lived experience to the decisions we make and to ensure that women are not forgotten in policy debates, especially those occurring now in superannuation. Just as we need all forms of representation and diversity, this ensures good governance and innovation, and those things lead to good outcomes.
Most of us grew up in households where our mothers were the primary caregivers and lots of us are still the primary carers, even though we’re picking up more paid work than ever before. Yet our super balances do not reflect the value of caring work. This needs to change or we condemn future generations of women to poverty in retirement. These are the lived experiences of most Australian women. It is this reality that we need women to bring to their leadership roles.
We, as a collective, won’t do better if we only succeed when our working lives replicate that of successful men. Instead we need to consider how the systems and structures we set up are working for women. Or put more plainly as Catherine Fox said, we need to stop fixing women: “Women are told they need to back themselves more, stop marginalising themselves, negotiate better, speak up, support each other, strike a balance between work and home”.
Women in Super National Roadshow 2019, Brisbane
Real change will only be brought about when we realise that we are not the problem, but that we need to promote structural changes that will work for everyone and this is very evident in the super system. Women are more likely to be in vulnerable work.
We have less access to financial institutions. We’re less likely to have workplace protections, benefits and access to super. We spend 2 ½ times more of our time on unpaid work. In fact, women do so much unpaid work that if it were paid, it would account for between 10% and 39% of GDP.
We need to put on a “gender lens” to ensure that we set up systems and structures that work for women who have large chunks of time out of the workforce caring for young children and the elderly. The system needs to work for:
- women who take on the bulk of the “unpaid work”;
- women who work part time to ensure that our households run smoothly;
- women who make the sandwiches for lunch boxes;
- women who are the taxis for our children;
- women who find themselves running through Coles on the way home from work trying to pull together a meal;
- women who take on the “mental load” of remembering school excursions and sports days;
- women who are the unpaid volunteers in our school canteens and uniform shops; and
- women who run the P&C.
Those women as well as us. That’s what we need to do. I cannot stress these points strongly enough given that our superannuation system is built around the capacity to work. To put it bluntly those people, and they are more likely to be men, who are able to work full time continuously from the end of schooling until retirement, are more likely to enjoy a secure retirement than those who cannot. Those who cannot are more likely to be women, which means that women are more likely to face an insecure retirement.
This is forcefully argued in the report ‘The Future Face of Poverty is Female’ put together by a group of researchers from Monash University supported by AustralianSuper. I urge you all to become familiar with its contents.
Which brings us to Superannuation. Our current system was introduced in the early 1990s after the Hawke government expressed support for it as part of the “social wage” or accord between unions and government. Our system has delivered some fabulous outcomes. Until the SGC was introduced Superannuation was the preserve of the few not the many. Compulsory superannuation has, for the first time, allowed working people, especially women who were locked out of previous schemes, to build their own wealth and create an asset in a way that they have never able to do before.
Chief Economist at the Australia Institute, Richard Denniss, has this advice for people who want to build up a superannuation nest egg:
- Don’t work in a caring profession.
- Don’t take time out of work while you’re young.
- Don’t take time out of work while you’re older.
- Don’t be a woman.
Women in Super National Roadshow 2019, Sydney
There are things that can be done to dismantle the systemic problems that entrench the gender pay gap such as companies identifying and addressing gender pay gaps internally, paying superannuation on unpaid leave and being intentional about ensuring women are in leadership roles. Lots of employers in our industry (and others) are doing just that but it’s not enough.
Unless we fix the structural inequities that are built into the current system it won’t matter what the future of work or working arrangements will be because these problems will just be replicated, or worse, amplified. Imagine a world where everyone in our community is able to live with dignity, regardless of your:
- work experience;
- ability or disability; or
- your socio-economic background.
A society where there is a minimum standard of living that every person is entitled to, a roof over their head, a belly full of food, and enough disposable income to enjoy a treat from time to time. Now imagine a superannuation system that would deliver this dignity to every single person during their twilight years. I want to live in a world where a baby born tomorrow with a profound disability does not mean a life in poverty for that child or that child’s mother unless they are independently wealthy.
I want the system to deliver for those people as well as for those who choose to work in caring professions – not just those who work in ASX listed companies. I want the system to recognise the value of child rearing and to provide dignity in retirement for the woman:
- who has brought up her children;
- cared for her elderly parents and in-laws; and
- then divorces later in life.
I want the system to provide dignity in retirement for:
- those who work in the gig economy;
- those who work a number of casual jobs; and
- those who are forced to be “individual contractors”.
We’ve just had a federal election and I’m disappointed to say that the reforms we hoped for will not come to pass during this term of government. The public policy solutions that rely on government intervention have to be put back on the shelf. We need to look past what the government can (and should) deliver and step back into the world we know the world in which we have some control.
The simple things that “good” employers are already doing are:
- prioritising the elimination of the gender pay gap at every level of the organisation;
- paying superannuation on unpaid leave;
- employer superannuation contributions closer to 15% than 9.5%; and
- creating flexible approaches to parental leave that are flexible enough to encourage more fathers to access parental leave and take on caring responsibilities.
If your employer isn’t already doing these things you should be asking why not and then start demanding them! I spoke earlier about the way better wages and conditions were won in the past.
FSU National Conference 2017
Unions would fight for these rights in key sectors, and then they would be passed on to Awards. Today workers get better wages and conditions through Enterprise Bargaining and your ability to get better outcomes is often determined by the levels of union membership. Studies show that union members on average earn more than non-union members. For men it’s a 12% difference while for women it’s 18%.
If you want to negotiate improvements to conditions at work, the most effective way to do this is to join your union. Fortunately for all of you, I’m here today, and our Union, the FSU is your union too! Women are the present and the future of the labour movement and it’s going to be women who will turn the movement around. The typical union member is now a 46 year old nurse not a bloke with a hi-vis vest on. I need you all to get on board and help me turn this movement around. There are membership forms (and pens!) on your tables and if you’re not already a member you should sign up. It’s the best union!
I spoke earlier about the importance of having women bringing their lived experiences to the roles that they are in. I absolutely believe that for the sort of structural changes we need to see as women who work in Super we need to bring to the table the reality of Australian Women’s lived collective experience.
The experience of:
- single mums;
- women who work part time;
- women who work in our caring professions; and
- women who take time out of the workforce.
Impact of Long Term Leave
All of these women rely on us to fight for a system that brings dignity to their lives, their needs and their expectations. Just being here isn’t enough. We need to work with our male allies, many of whom have joined us today. The challenge is to shift to a point where men and women apply a gender lens when examining our systems and structures.
While preparing for this talk I became quite taken with a policy idea that has been thrown around by various organisations to try to tackle this “wicked problem”, and how to provide a boost to those with low super balances in a similar vein to the way super tax concessions give a boost to high income earners. Without going into too much detail, providing a contribution to low balance super accounts would have the effect of super charging these accounts, especially if we can take advantage of the impact of compound interest.
Unfortunately, most low income workers, both men and women, particularly those in insecure work find it difficult to save for their retirement or make additional superannuation contributions. We know that even small superannuation balances can be the difference between poverty or dignity in retirement. We are sometimes told that throwing money at a problem is not always the best fix, however in this instance – it is. Targeted top ups will have a significant impact on lifting low super balances and have the added benefit of acknowledging the value of unpaid work.
Imagine if we targeted low income earners and low super balances. This would have a significant impact on lifting low super balances and will also acknowledge the value of unpaid work.
So good idea, but how do we pay for it?
There are 4 options that come to mind, none of which are perfect:
- Government pays:
While I think we all agree that this should be a government responsibility it’s not going to happen any time soon. Just last week newly elected Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg used his maiden speech in parliament to call for superannuation to be voluntary for low paid workers. With men like this in government thinking they would fund improvements to superannuation is like walking into a lolly shop and ordering a salad. We need to decide if we’re prepared to wait for a future Labor Government who MIGHT support this policy and condemn yet another generation of women to retire in poverty.
- Employers pay:
Again, great in theory but the only way this will happen is if there is a competitive advantage for firms to step up. That won’t happen until we see enough employers actually paying it. And we all know that sharing isn’t a key tenant of capitalism.
- Superannuation funds pay:
At the moment laws and regulations about fiduciary responsibilities restrict the sorts of investments that Super Funds can explore.
- Philanthropists pay:
Again, this is great in theory but until we can find some really rich people willing to throw money at a “social good” this is unlikely as well.
I’ve talked to you about how I’m using my role in the union movement to drive change for women. I’ve shared with you the ideas that I’ll be encouraging the board of AustralianSuper to consider. But now it’s over to you. I believe that where there is a will, there will be a way. But I’m a union official. This isn’t my area of expertise. This is your area. Will you step up and use your expertise as ‘Women in Super’ to find a way?