Senator Jane Hume: What does it mean for women to be economically secure?

By Emily McAuliffe

Senator the Honourable Jane Hume (TC 1989) is the Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and the Digital Economy, and Minister for Women’s Economic Security, having entered the Australian federal ministry in 2019. She speaks to us about why women’s economic security is important and how we should go about addressing financial inequality in Australia.

Headshot of Jane Hume

When you were at College, did you have an inkling you’d get into politics?

My friends tell me that I used to talk about politics at school. I honestly don't remember. I was always interested, but I was a bit shy. When I got to Trinity, there were a lot of strong personalities, and, if there’s one thing College taught me, it was to speak up. I was still reasonably shy when I entered College, but it's one of those places where you get an opportunity to essentially try on different selves. You can do the musical and the play, and try new sports. You can meet people who are doing things that you hadn't even contemplated. For me, that was the best experience, in that I got to expand my horizons and networks but also try on different selves at a time that was formative.

I remember when I joined the University Liberal club, I thought they were all so strident and angry and articulate. They knew exactly what they believed in. I didn't at that stage – my opinions weren't fully formed – so I shied away from student politics.

It wasn't until I became an adult and immersed myself in the ‘adult’ Liberal Party, rather than student politics, and went back to uni as a mature-age student and did a politics major, that I was really able to articulate why I believed what I believed in. So, politics was an interest that became a hobby, which became a passion, which became an obsession, and which then became a profession.

In 2021, you became the first Minister for Women’s Economic Security. What does it mean to be economically secure?

This means something different to everybody, but, from my perspective, it focuses on removing barriers and creating more opportunities. In the context of women, it means giving them greater choice to help them reach their economic potential and financial security across their lifetime. It’s also about respect and dignity.

Equality in opportunity can't be achieved unless women have the same freedoms and choices as men do. So, our aim is to see women achieve their full potential by removing barriers and disincentives, and fostering not just financial security, but physical security too.

Why is there an imbalance for women?

There has been an imbalance for centuries, but the issue we're facing now is a culmination of women experiencing a lifetime of gender pay gaps. Workforce participation rates have been traditionally lower for women. In Australia, even though we have very high levels of education, there is entrenched disadvantage that comes from structural inequities that are part of our culture and society.

That said, things are changing and we're chipping away at them. We've come an awful long way, even in the last 10, 20, 40 years, but there is still a long way to go.

What is a common misconception about economic security?

The most common misconception is that it's a problem that can be solved by governments throwing money at it. And that simply isn't the case because there are structural and cultural inequities and social norms that need to be addressed for women to fully participate in the economy.

As a Liberal, I've always abided by the notion that a civilised society is defined by its ability to look after those who can't look after themselves, but a prosperous society is one that empowers its citizens to be their best selves economically and socially. Creating a society that fosters empowerment over dependence is the only way we will achieve sustainable equality. We need to give women the best opportunity to fulfil their lives on their own terms.

Do you have personal experiences to draw on when it comes to gender inequality in the workplace?

I think most of my female friends I went through College with would agree that, even though they had a fantastic education and terrific jobs in the private and public sector, when they took time away to have children, by their own choice, their economic trajectory was set back a long way. Now that our children are getting to the stage where they are becoming adults themselves, many of these women have made up the difference, but it set us back.

Statistics show that, over a lifetime, women who have children will earn around $2 million less than the equivalent man. That's an extraordinary statistic and a little bit frightening. But, that said, that gap is narrowing now that workplaces are offering more flexible alternatives that put a greater focus on happy employees and allow people to balance their work and home life.

There also needs to be a focus on retaining talent rather than ‘discarding’ a woman who may want to have children, then starting all over again with somebody new. It's much more productive for an organisation to maintain ties with that talent and try to retain them in the organisation.

What role does the government have to play in addressing financial inequality?

The first thing the government can do is lead by example, and I think it does that very well. The public sector has always been a good employer for women. But the most important thing is that the government can't do it alone.

We have to make sure that the private sector is co-opted into any changes that make the workplace more accessible and more female friendly. So, things like combatting discrimination, reducing violence against women, making sure sexual harassment in the workplace is unacceptable and properly dealt with, narrowing the gender pay gap – these are all things that the private sector has as much responsibility for as the government.

Individuals, businesses, communities and all levels of government need to be rowing in the same direction.

What can individuals do?

Calling out bad behaviour at work is a good start. If you see that there are two people within an organisation that do equal amounts of work, but sense they are paid differently or inappropriately, that's something you should probably highlight to a level above.

Also, everybody has a responsibility to make sure women's voices are heard around the table. One of the things women often say is that they feel it's hard to step forward and have their voices heard in meetings, and, if they do, sometimes they're spoken over.

We can all easily do something to help another woman by putting a hand out. I said in my maiden speech, addressing women who reach a position of seniority: Don't pull the ladder up from behind you, lower it down, put out your hand and pull another person up, because, when you reach that critical mass of women in the workplace, the culture genuinely shifts.

Do we need a mindset shift as a population?

We've still got a long way to go. You only need to look at the statistics that show that so few CEOs of listed companies – or even people in the C-suite – in Australia are women. But progress has been made and we have to keep at it.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency does some really good work holding the private sector to account for its gender equity metrics, but there is also room for role models. Somebody like Canva CEO and co-founder Melanie Perkins, for instance, is such an extraordinary role model. AMP has a female CEO. There are so many great role models and we need to hold these women up and say, you are the torchbearers. Then, we don't just want women to follow in their footsteps, we want other women to walk alongside them and overtake them in the quest for gender equality.

What worries you about the challenge of creating gender balance from an economic security point of view?

It's an enormous task, and, when you've finished the job, the issues will still be there. I don't think we will see an end point where we can say ‘tick, done, gender equality achieved’. It will always be ongoing. That said, if I can see a reduction of the gender pay gap and an increase in women's economic participation, they would be the two metrics I would measure my own success by in that portfolio.

What excites you?

This is a movement that has the momentum of the nation behind it. And particularly post-COVID, we've realised that, unless we can harness all our resources – and that includes our human capital – it will be much harder to economically recover. We have one of the best-educated female workforces in the world, and yet we have comparably lower rates of workforce participation and higher rates of part-time work for women in Australia. If we can tweak our policy settings and slowly move our cultural and social norms, we're moving in the right direction. Momentum is with us.

You have three children, Harry, 20 (TC 2020), Charlie, 18, and Imogen, 16. What kind of world would you like to see them grow up in?

I'd like to see them live in a world where they know they have to work hard to achieve their goals and aspirations, because nobody gets a free ride. At the same time, I want them all to have the freedom and opportunity to make genuine choices about their lives, about their families and how they raise them, and about the work they do. I don't want them to feel there's anything preventing them from reaching their full potential to have a meaningful life.

This article first appeared in issue #90 of Trinity Today.



07 Mar 2022
Category: People