A Tough Old Town
By Ellen FanningMarch 4, 2012
For the first time, researchers have assembled a nuanced portrait of the lives of women and girls in Australia’s biggest city.
Reading the report A Portrait of Women and Girls in Greater Sydney is a strange experience. Taken as a whole, the portrait is shocking. On the fringes of this vibrant and ever-expanding city, it is the women, by virtue of being women, who are most likely to lead hard lives.
And yet the brushstrokes of this portrait are so familiar. Perhaps we've heard it so often we don't really believe it. The lack of equal pay, of affordable child care, the epidemic of domestic violence, the incidence of cancer and obesity, and, in retirement, what the report calls "the long lives of relative penury". Each one of these areas is the subject of its own detailed study. The genius of what the Sydney Women's Fund has done is to pull together the existing academic papers, all those years of research, to form a single identikit picture of Sydney's disadvantaged women and girls.
"These longstanding issues do not seem to have budged," notes the report. And yet, "there is a palpable reluctance to admit failure." It says that 50 years of rapid and profound social change means "much of what women have worked hard for is tantalisingly out of reach or slipping backwards."
"This is a city of winners," says the executive director of the Sydney Women's Fund, Kristi Mansfield. "In many senses, we are wilfully blind to disadvantage." When she has meetings with people, she often finds they are not convinced that there could be a problem at all. "[They ask] 'Haven't we dealt with inequality? What's the issue? What's the big deal? Aren't women better off than they ever were?'" she recounts.
The report, funded by Barclays Capital, answers those assumptions about the mythical Sydney woman who can "have it all" with an unarguable statistical portrait that is real and powerful and stark. "It's quite shocking, some of it," says Mansfield.
The report concludes, "The story of women and girls in Greater Sydney has not previously been told. While some things are improving for women … the painful reality is that for many women … (they) are not." (It) is a story about inequality."
You only have to look at what happens to Australian women when they get old to understand the disadvantage they suffer throughout their lives. The new face of homelessness in Australia is a single, older woman.
Unlike the stereotypical male dero, you won't find her sleeping rough. She won't necessarily have a history of mental illness, cognitive impairment or substance abuse. Instead, she will most likely have held down a job all her life and raised a family. She will have made ends meet. But a divorce, separation, an illness or domestic violence means she can no longer make it in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Recent research shows it'd be cheaper for her to move to New York.
"One of the most disadvantaged demographic profiles for a person to have is to be old, single, poor, female and in private rental accommodation," the report concludes.
A look at maps showing housing affordability shows why. A report titled The Great Australian Dream notes, "Sydney started the decade as the worst capital city for affordability and ended the decade in exactly the same way."
These days, almost no parts of greater Sydney can be classified as affordable.
It's just as bad in all other Australian capital cities. Take a look at the housing affordability map for Melbourne.
That is contributing not only to "mortgage stress" but to "rental stress". The basic single aged pension is about $340 per week. Rent on a two-bedroom flat in Sydney costs at least $300.
While there is very little data about the impact of house prices on women and girls specifically, the report identifies single people and single-parent households as at greatest risk. And the greater proportion of those single parents are women.
A single mother is more likely to be in rental accommodation and work fewer hours than male single parents, in part because she is more likely to be caring for someone with a long-term health condition, disability or impairment.
What isn't keeping pace with her rent or mortgage payments is her pay packet. A Sydney woman who is not in management earns more than 10 per cent less than a man, according to the NSW Office for Women's Policy 2011.
She is more likely to be a casual employee, less likely to have a superannuation account, and even if she does, she will accumulate less savings than a man her own age. The average super balance held by women is $92,000, and is well below the $154,000 average held by men.
Education obviously makes a difference to incomes, but if a Sydney woman lives outside inner and coastal Sydney, she is much less likely to have been to university. Female educational attainment is becoming more polarised. While 27 per cent of Sydney women hold bachelor's degrees, 31 per cent of women don't complete year 12.
If she has no qualifications and is therefore on a very low income, she's likely to be forced to live on the fringes of the city, in pockets of entrenched disadvantage and despair. If she heads a single-parent household, she'll find more and more single mums living around her the further she gets from the CBD. In these neighbourhoods, her kids are more likely to drop out of high school, to struggle with language and thinking skills.
As a result, notes the report, "When they retire many women are still faced with long lives of relative penury. A sizeable proportion [face] housing insecurity and poverty."
Helen Williams, the service manager at The Women and Girls Emergency Centre in inner-city Surry Hills, agrees with research showing that over the next 20 years there could well be an epidemic of pension-aged women who don't have a roof over their heads.
"These women are coming through from an era before work for women was supported," she says. "Unless you're pretty secure, have your own home, I think lots of people are on the verge of homelessness in this city. If one little thing falls out, they are at risk."
That one thing is often a health crisis.
Once domiciled in what are fast becoming ghettos in Sydney, she can expect her health and that of her children to decline. The report points to research papers revealing the inextricable link between housing and health. It cuts both ways: living in lower socio-economic areas is bad for your health and "as health worsens the likelihood of living in precarious housing increases," the report says.
If the Sydney woman lives in the western or southwestern parts of the city or further north in Wyong, her baby is more likely to die in childhood. There are up to 44 per cent more infant deaths in these areas compared to Sydney's least disadvantaged areas. She herself is more likely to die before the age of 64 - there are 46 per cent more deaths under this age in the most disadvantaged areas - and she's more likely to be obese as an adult.
She is more likely to suffer child abuse or domestic violence. In two months in 2010 and 2011, there were 613 female victims of alcohol-related assault in Blacktown in Sydney's outer west, compared with 204 in Parramatta, closer to the CBD.
As a teenager, she is more likely to harm herself, a trend that has risen steeply in recent years. Between 1996 and 2006, there was a 90 per cent rise in hospitalisation of 15 to 17-year-old girls due to self-harm incidents. A 12 to 14-year-old Sydney girl who hurts herself in this way is six times more likely to end up in hospital as a Sydney boy.
And as she ages, she is likely to get what used to be a very male disease: a gambling addiction. The Productivity Commission has found the Sydney woman living in a lower socio-economic area is much more likely to be addicted to playing the pokies. It's what the report calls "the feminisation of problem gambling".
Part of the problem is simple unhappiness.
The report points to a University of Virginia study, published last year in a leading journal of psychology, that found that as income inequality grows, those on lower incomes get more and more unhappy - not necessarily because of their own low income but because they are more inclined to believe that others are unfair and untrustworthy. It's a phenomenon that has spiked in the US since the 1980s, along with Wall Street salaries.
There are lighter sides to the report.
It seems that various research papers over the past few years point to a reluctance among all Sydney women to eat their vegetables. Don't tell the children, please. Despite that, women live longer than men and the Sydney woman is likely to be among the longest lived in the world.
And there is some equality across the sprawling city: babies are mostly immunised. Money doesn't protect any woman from breast cancer. And a better income probably means she drinks more alcohol, even if binge drinking is more associated with marginalised groups.
The portrait of the lives of Aboriginal women and girls also reveals glimmers of hope amid grim and familiar statistics about life expectancy, infant mortality, and violence.
Aboriginal babies are just as likely to be immunised as non-indigenous Sydneysiders, and they are just as likely to head off to preschool when they're four years old. Over the past few years, an Aboriginal girl has become much more likely to stay at school.
And even though she is less likely than a non-Aboriginal girl to finish high school, she is more likely than virtually anyone else in Sydney to keep on studying. The report says Aboriginal women aged between 15 and 64 are more likely than any other group to be undertaking post-school study. Bet you didn't know that.
The risk in all this, according to Kristi Mansfield, is that Sydney will become even more a city of haves and have-nots: "Poverty is becoming entrenched for women in some pockets. There are hot-spot communities ripe for the sort of violence we've seen in other OECD countries.
"Unless we invest in these women and support them, we are going to have potentially fractured communities. You can see the fabric is starting to dissolve because there is so much experience of being disadvantaged and marginalised. It's a trauma and it's becoming the norm. But the good news is that when women come together to change that, when they are given the financial resources to do so, they can transform their communities and their neighbourhoods."
It's called the power of the purse. It's the so-called third wave of feminism, in which women who have benefitted from the feminist movement use their wealth to broaden opportunities for all women.
Part of the reason the Sydney Women's Fund commissioned such a forensic portrait of women and girls in Sydney was to figure out how best to deploy the half-million dollars they've raised from better off Australian women who want to be sure their money is making a difference.
Within five years, the Women's Fund aims to have $3 million, which Mansfield says goes a long way when distributed in small, sometimes short-term grants.
Based on overseas models, the Women's Fund provides a sort of philanthropic version of venture capital. It will use the research in the report to target its grants. Already the fund demands business plans and detailed documentation from women's organisations that apply. And just like a venture capitalist, Mansfield and her team are looking for early-stage, high-potential, high-risk, growth start-up companies. The slight tweak on that model is that the return on investment is measured in community impact, not dollars.
One project about to be funded will allow migrant women in the south western suburb of Bankstown to expand a celebrated local business. Just around the corner from Sydney's biggest mosque, the women design, market and sell handbags made from recycled materials.
"They delivered us this opportunity for investment, on a plate, really," says Mansfield. "The women identified exactly what they needed. They built not only a business with employment opportunities but social inclusion and connectedness."
As for the increasing numbers of women facing homelessness and housing insecurity, welfare workers have been pointing out for years that they remain at risk, even if given the keys to a house.
"There are so many reasons that won't work," says Helen Williams. "These women have often been through traumatic experiences. It might be domestic violence, where they've often had to leave everything behind. Just becoming homeless itself is traumatic. They might not have money to set up a house. With mental health issues, they might not have the living skills needed.
"Without assistance, they could end up homeless again and it starts all over. It's a lot cheaper to keep someone housed than [see them] back in crisis, involving police, hospitals and emergency accommodation," she says.
The Fund spent just $10,000 on a pilot program at Williams' Surry Hills emergency centre, to employ someone to support women to get back on their feet. It was so successful, it was rolled out across the inner west of Sydney and is now funded by another charitable foundation.
What works, according to the fund and the many welfare workers interviewed by The Global Mail, are specific housing and other welfare policies designed just for women. But many fear that the underlying gender inequality in Australia that causes the problem also stands in the way of a solution.
It's hard to imagine a female Prime Minister ordering up "women only" welfare policies, said one. The male talkback hosts would make short work of such affirmative action. Bad enough a female Prime Minister, they couldn't take a feminist as well.
But Mansfield is more optimistic. "This is an area where philanthropy can lead. We are putting a gender lens on our work, to be more effective in how we apply funds. We can show the way for the private sector, for other corporates and also for government."
The report, released March 5, concludes, "Over and over again, the lives of women and girls can be shown to be profoundly affected by relative inequality, affecting their life chances, their access to resources, their opportunity to feel valued and respected and in a deep sense, their capacity to participate in all that Sydney has to offer."