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<p>GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images</p>

GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images

An elderly woman feeds pigeons in Sydney's Hyde Park.

A Tough Old Town

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."

A Sydney woman who is not in management earns more than 10 per cent less than a man.

"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.

<p>Courtesy of AMP NATSEM INCOME AND WEALTH REPORT 2011.</p>

Courtesy of AMP NATSEM INCOME AND WEALTH REPORT 2011.

This map shows the rising rents in Melbourne over the past decade, where only the outlying suburbs can be classified as affordable.

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.

“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.”

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."

<p>Courtesy of AMP NATSEM INCOME AND WEALTH REPORT 2011.</p>

Courtesy of AMP NATSEM INCOME AND WEALTH REPORT 2011.

Rents in Sydney have now increased so much that almost no part of the greater Sydney region can be considered affordable.

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.

The new face of homelessness in Australia is a single, older woman. Recent research shows it’d be cheaper for her to move to New York.

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.

<p>Photo by TGM.</p>

Photo by TGM.

Starting a small business: handbags made from recycled materials.

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.

“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.”

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.

<p>Photo by TGM.</p>

Photo by TGM.

The Bankstown community project making handbags from recycled materials.

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."

5 comments on this story
by Ryan

‘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.’

I might be digressing but I resonate with the underlying theme of the article – poverty and inequality.

It’s a thin line that separates the lower middle class from the working poor. As a male, I might be less likely to fall through that line as women but living in Sydney, I feel the pressure. The more one looks around, (particularly at the USA) that man, women or family you realise that most of us are vulnerable and one major mishap whether it be bad economy, job loss, illness or a number of other calamites can send us crashing down into the queues of Centerlink all too unexpectedly.

I guess we are all in the race to keep trying to reach the next rung on the ladder so we have a bigger buffer zone of skills, cash, assets, security etc between us and the floor.

If interested, one documentary that touches on this theme and those that have truly ‘fallen’ and are trying to get back up is ‘Wasteland’ with Vic Muniz.

March 6, 2012 @ 2:12pm
by Michael

I have enjoyed Ellen Fanning's work for several years and, whilst I do not question the statistics she has used in this article, I do suspect that she has juxtaposed some circumstances in a way that is confusing at best, and perhaps misleading. Whilst I believe there are many circumstances that disadvantage women in Australia at the present time, and I agree that not enough is being done to ameliorate those that are in need, I think articles advocating for women should be more rigorous than this article has been. Let me explain.

Helen commences her story describing the poor circumstances for single women approaching retirement and old age. This is indeed a bad situation and it will require a significant response by all three levels of government. It should not be discussed together with the problems of infant mortality or the high cost of child care. Notably absent from Ellen's article was the fact that, since 1985, enrolments in and graduation from, universities in Australia have included more women than men. It is that latter group that are confronted with the difficulties of raising young childen and they are in a much better financial position than women in the post-reproductive phase of their lives.

Ellen mentioned the high cost of living in Sydney. Rents at $300 or more for a two bedroom flat are not very different to Hobart, a city where food and fuel are significantly higher, and a place that has much less employment and income opportunity. The cost of living is not gender specific, and with changing education outcomes will be less gender specific in the future.

I believe Ellen has missed a more troubling structural situation regarding wealth distribution. During yesterday's "The World Today" programme on ABC Radio it was claimed that women are financially worse off after divorce property settlement cases. If that is so there are serious questions to be asked about why and how family law settles the asset settlements in divorce proceedings at the present time.

I believe that Ellen has 'genderised' the disparity between immigrant incomes and second generation immigrant earnings. Historically immigrants have accept low paid positions whereas their children outperform non-immigant children in educational qualifications and income levels.

Ellen also mentions statistics that are a function of Sydney's regional planning policies. Those things effect men as much as they effect women. Any gender difference was, I believe, inadequately articulated.

It seems to me that 'the market' has failed to adequately provide for women in Australia. I believe that it is the purpose of government to intervene and correct the situation.

March 7, 2012 @ 11:35am
Show previous 2 comments
by Rob

I am too often frustrated by stories such as these. Women's lobby groups of all kinds are continually reminding us of the presence and impact of gender inequality. I read articles like these wanting to see and understand where these groups are coming from and what they have to say. But all too often I come away thinking: well of course if you start with a presumption of inequality and look for its causes, you will inevitably find them.

And I can't help wonder why it is that the solutions proffered to resolve the consequences of inequality so often seem to hinge around gendered legislation and policy. Indeed, in this case, to make a veiled call to the PM to have the guts to support policies that ignore the plight of homeless men and boys.

Men and women alike are part of the problem; they are part of the solution. Women are not hapless victims of circumstance or male conspiracy. I've seen the effects of modern day 'feminists' on my own daughter - I can only conclude the these feminists have managed to create in her an expectation of inequality. Surely that is counter productive? Women are supposed to be empowered, not conditioned by feminists to believe that they are not; To cast women as the victims and men, if not the aggressors, the beneficiaries.

So Ellen, please, some gender objectivity would be helpful. I can't even imagine what you'd be writing if men lived longer than women.

March 9, 2012 @ 12:56am
by Jackie

There are many ways to try and understand why people end up in dreadful situations. Gender, like race, socioeconomic background, educational opportunities and geography, is one way of cutting the data to try and see if it has a causative relationship with disadvantage.

I think that some of the comments on this article are highlighting that yes, there are other disadvantaged people out there, and yes, there is nuance in the data. But we should take what lessons we can from the research this article reports. Upon its most conservative reading, we can at least say that some women are homeless because of the choices they have made or have not been able to make as a result of their gender. This is not to downplay others' experiences of poverty, or hardship, or the many individual decisions in a person's life which lead to their ultimate situation. But that is what research and data does: it shows trends which defy the variables. And this research is saying that gender really is a useful descriptor of some types of disadvantage. And therefore, in formulating responses to homelessness, it makes sense to take the gender related causes of homelessness into account; and therefore also any gender related as well as mainstream, potential solutions.

March 14, 2012 @ 9:28am
by Kristi Mansfield

I'm surprised by some of the comments highlighted here. I have worked in philanthropy advising for 9 years and one of the major barriers to creating social change for the long term - meaningful change for all of us - is the reluctance to apply a gender lens to social issues. The consequence is that the vast majority of funding is mainstream and does not address the specific needs of women and girls or boys and men. That means ultimately the $1 Billion in philanthropic money that goes into the Australian community each year and the billions in government money is not as effective as it could be. I run the Sydney Women's Fund. We are a group of strategic donors whose goal it is to invest in women and children to benefit all of the community - the Portrait of Women and Girls in Greater Sydney provides the evidence base for effective philanthropy and social investment. We now know where we need to focus and because of this I've visited a number of community organisations in Sydney in the last few months.

One observation is that there are virtually zero philanthropy dollars being driven into the grassroots in the most vulnerable communities in Sydney. The other is that there is a groundswell of action, much of which is driven by local women who are experiencing social breakdown in their communities. They are initiating ideas to benefit their community. A food security program in Warwick Farm resulting in multiple benefits for the entire community, a social enterprise in Lakemba, a program to help get young mothers with tertiary education in low income areas into employment are all great projects that need investment. They are driven by women, and they benefit the whole community.

We also fund programs that support men and boys when it means the family and community benefit. Mindful giving is about understanding needs wholistically. If we are genuinely concerned about creating a more equal, better society for all, then we must apply gender analysis to any funding decision otherwise risk investment that is ineffective.

March 29, 2012 @ 1:09pm
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