Bias and barriers break girls’ great start in life

Australia has made great strides in education for boys and girls but structural and cultural barriers cut this progress short when it comes to gender equity in the workplace, writes Julia Gillard.

My life these days is full of young people. Whether it is visiting classrooms overseas, speaking at schools or meeting young men and women on my book tour – young people surround me. I often reflect on how different their lives are to how mine was at their age, particularly for young women. Growing up now means different opportunities, different jobs, different challenges and different paths to forge.

This is perhaps no more true than in their education. Indeed, young people tend to look at me with a mix of surprise and horror when I tell them that part of my public school education included compulsory classes for girls in laundry as part of the study of “home economics”. I have to quickly reassure them I am not 100 years old, just 53. This reality for Australian girls was not that long ago!

The idea that girls would learn housework while men would learn home repairs in our schools today is a ridiculous concept, as it should be. Over the past few decades we have made huge strides in delivering an education system that produces the best outcomes for both our boys and our girls.

Our girls have more educational opportunities than ever before in Australia, and they are excelling because of it. In the key learning basics of reading and writing, Australian girls outperform boys. And when it comes to their university studies, girls continue to outperform, with 42 per cent of women aged 25 to 29 holding a university degree, compared to 31 per cent of men (ANZ Women’s Report, 2015). What a spectacular achievement this is: Australian girls start their lives with equal access to learning and all the opportunities that it brings.

Education and gender equity are inextricably linked: if girls have equal opportunities early, their chances of forging equal futures are much improved. Yet sadly, beyond Australia, a quality education remains an elusive commodity for many women. There are approximately 31 million girls who are currently missing out on a primary education (UNICEF), and tens of millions more who are in school but not learning the literacy and numeracy basics (United Nations, Education First). This statistic tells a sorry tale: we have failed our poorest girls.

Girls’ education is vital not only for their own empowerment but for the broader wellbeing of their families and nations. For instance, if all women in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia had reached secondary school, child marriages and early births would drop by almost two thirds (OECD, 2013). In south Asia, 22 million fewer children would be malnourished if their mothers reached a secondary education (OECD). And if all women, in all poor countries, had the opportunity of a secondary education, we would see child deaths cut by a staggering 3 million lives (OECD). Given these facts it is obvious that the world’s economic strength and wellbeing is maximised by educating girls.

Despite the intrinsic link between education and gender equity, the path to empowerment doesn’t end in the classroom. Notwithstanding our huge strides on girls’ education in Australia, once they have left the classroom, true equity starts to elude them. The ANZ Women’s Report, which was launched in July, reveals a shocking statistic: when Australian women accept their first graduate job, they also accept a reality that sees them earning 4 per cent less than men who hold the same qualification. Make no mistake – these are the same women with the same education from the same universities. And they are being paid less than those with the exact same qualification as soon as they start their first post-uni job. Given the age of our average graduates, I do not believe this can be explained fully by the structural issues such as the need to care for small children.

Of course, as women’s careers continue, the statistics just get worse. Over her lifetime, a postgraduate-educated woman will earn less than a man with a year 12 qualification (ANZ Women’s Report). These pay gaps spiral and compound until the inequity is so great that it is near impossible to rectify. Inadequate superannuation, low standards of living and relative poverty are just some of the possible side-effects.

We can be hugely proud of the milestones that we have achieved for young women in Australia, but we can’t stop there. We need to address the structural and cultural barriers to women’s empowerment, including the conscious and unconscious bias that inhibits women’s advancement in workplaces.

Looking abroad, we need to do more for women globally who are stuck on a very different starting block. Removing gender barriers in education is the first step towards a more equal world. We have achieved that in Australia: we must achieve it for all girls. This is not only the economically prudent thing to do – it is morally and ethically right.

The fact that Australian girls once learned laundry at school shouldn’t be the only thing that shocks young people today. I look forward to a time where the idea that women earned less pay for the same work, or didn’t get a chance to go to primary school, is just as bemusing.

Originally produced by Guardian Australia Brand Partnerships to a brief agreed with and paid for by ANZ.