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For years women have been banging up against the glass ceiling, but new figures reveal another problem – Australia's gender wealth gap has widened sharply over the past decade leaving single young women with a little over half the average assets of their male counterparts.
The disparity in average wealth between single men and single women across all age groups grew from $18,300 to $47,000 between 2002 and 2010, research has found.
Illustration: Matt Golding.
The findings mean that both the gender wealth gap and the gender pay gap have been rising in recent years. The earnings advantage for an average full-time male worker over an average full-time woman reached 18.2 per cent in August, the biggest difference since 1994. The growing gender disparity in both pay and wealth comes despite a long-term rise in female workforce participation and strong growth in the proportion of women with tertiary qualifications.
The Curtin University economists who conducted the study – Siobhan Austen, Rachel Ong, Sherry Bawa and Therese Jefferson said the main driver of the widening gender wealth gap was growth in the value of housing assets owned by single men. Also, the debt held by single men recorded more modest growth which helped boost their their net wealth.
"All our theories, and common sense, say that education is an important route to higher earnings and higher economic opportunity," said associate professor Siobhan Austen, a co-author of the wealth study. "And yet, despite young women now outnumbering young men in our universities quite substantially, we are not seeing a dramatic shift in the gender pay gap or the gender wealth gap. Indeed, they have trended upwards in the last decade."
By far the biggest disparity in wealth was between younger men and women – a typical single man aged under-35 had assets worth $120,200 in 2010 which was $56,700 – or 89 per cent – more than the average for women in the same age cohort. That's up from a wealth gap in that age group of $9,000, or 16 per cent, in 2002. The gender wealth gap among mid-age singles (35-55 years) jumped from 4 per cent to 28 per cent between 2002 and 2010 although the disparity among older single households over 55 narrowed from 16 per cent to 2.5 per cent.
Associate professor Austen said a growing gender wealth gap had major implications for the standard of living that men and women can expect in retirement.
"The data suggests we are going to see substantial gender wealth inequalities in old age," she said. "There are already a lot more women than men dependent on the age pension, for instance."
Helen Conway, director of the federal government's Workplace Gender Equality Agency said it was concerning to see increasing gender inequalities in both the gender pay gap and the distribution of wealth.
"Women are likely to live longer than men and be more reliant on government benefits in retirement, so the fact that this group is financially disadvantaged over the life-course has serious economic and social implications," she said.
To calculate the gender wealth gap the researchers compared the net wealth of single male households and single female households using the highly respected Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey. Widows and widowers were excluded, because their wealth was likely to reflect a couple's accumulated assets over time.
"The thing that really stood out in the data over that decade was that the primary housing assets of single male households increased much more rapidly than the housing assets of single women," associate professor Austen said.
More single female headed households have children than single male headed households and this might have constrained women's participation in the property market and the types of housing they can purchase.
"Women's housing investments may not have had as much potential for high price growth as men's," Austen said.
The superannuation balances of single women across the age groups grew more quickly than men's between 2002 and 2010 but this was not nearly enough to offset the substantial growth in single men's housing assets.