First published in the Australian Financial Review on 31 July 2013
By: Katie Walsh
Financial adviser Rice Warner Actuaries has taken the extraordinary step of getting the support of the Australian Human Rights Commission to pay its female – and only female – staff an extra 2 per cent in superannuation, taking their super payments to 11.25 per cent of their salaries from July 1.
The commission’s sanction will not stop an aggrieved man from taking the firm to court for discrimination but could help in any legal defence.
“As a nation, if we want our females to enjoy a comfortable retirement and not live below the poverty line, we all need to work together,” Rice Warner deputy chief executive Melissa Fuller said. “I’d like to do something positive to show that even though it’s a big problem, we can do something to improve the outcome of our employees.”
Rice Warner conducts research into super, which Ms Fuller said led to some “eye-opening” results when it came to the gender savings gap.
In total, women fall $383 billion short of adequate retirement savings.
About 30 per cent of Rice Warner’s 35 employees are women.
The 2 per cent super bonus is part of a broader package that includes flexible working conditions for all, paid parental leave, super and long-service leave accumulating during that leave, and education programs.
MALE STAFF ON BOARD
The package was about 12 months in the making and the firm’s board and staff, including the men, were supportive, Ms Fuller said.
Some measures were already informally in place.
Ms Fuller took maternity leave twice, on having her two children (now 8 and 11), and was supported by the firm throughout. She returned for two days a week initially, and still takes advantage of flexible arrangements.
“I’m at home today,” she said.
“It’s mutual trust; as long as people are getting done what they’re supposed to. It really does make a difference.
“They’ve got sisters, mothers, aunties, daughters . . . they understand the issue,” she said.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said the commission’s approval of Rice Warner’s policy as a “special measure” to address an inequality was based on the innovative package of strategies as a whole.
The 2 per cent super increase on its own may not have been approved.
Ms Broderick said she had not come across such a measure before but that did not mean it did not exist elsewhere.
The commission’s approval will not bind a court if action is taken; it could still find Rice Warner has discriminated against male staff. But it is a factor it will take into account.
‘SO MANY WOMEN … LIVE IN POVERTY IN THEIR TWILIGHT YEARS’
In approving the measure, it did not matter that the inequality was one that existed on a national basis rather than at a firm level, Ms Broderick said.
“In terms of solving the national inequality, workplaces will be an important participant; anything they can do to reduce that inequality is a positive,” Ms Broderick said.
On average, a 65-year-old woman will retire today with about $42,000 less than a man of that age; an amount they must make last longer because of a longer lifespan of about four years on average. In the 55 to 59-year-old bracket, the gap is about $66,000.
“The sad reality is there are so many women who live in poverty in their twilight years,” Ms Broderick said.
It gradually declines with youth, reaching a little over $1000 for 20 to 24-year-olds: men have $5800 on average; women, $4700.
Causes include the absence of the full benefit of a superannuation guarantee during the late working life of older women; pay gaps; and career breaks and part-time work for mothers.
One reason was unpaid carer’s leave, and many elements of Rice Warner’s package focused on that aspect, Ms Broderick said.
But the issue went beyond childcare, extending to caring responsibilities for elderly parents later in life.
“We’re talking tens of billions annually delivered to the Australian economy, and it’s mainly women that are doing that caring work,” she said.
The commission has called for a Productivity Commission review, including modelling a “caring credit scheme” in which the government pays into a carer’s super account, akin to a scheme introduced in Britain.
It wants the government to mandate super payments during paid parental leave as well; something Ms Fuller backs and the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees and Women in Super have lobbied for.
Ms Broderick hopes other employers will mimic Rice Warner. Or, at least, “those that want to attract more than their fair share of talented women”.
The Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees president and Women in Super chairwoman Cate Wood applauded Rice Warner’s move.
“The super system is not serving Australian women well, so we need employer measures like this, as well as better government policies, to help compensate women for their financial disadvantage,” she said.
Ms Fuller is realistic: to slash the gap, more is needed.
Women should engage with their super, investing appropriately and making voluntary contributions when they can.
“This initiative certainly isn’t going to close the gap,” she admitted.
“[But] if it’s increasing awareness to the issue, that’s a positive.”