Exploring financial feminism with Stacey Ong
Financial feminism can mean different things to different people. For us, we believe that the systems we build and are part of, should serve each of us, not just a select few.
Within those systems, financial independence is something that can enable and empower women and gender diverse people to realise their full potential and this is something we wholeheartedly support.
As the end of the financial year approaches, we wanted to explore this topic with Stacey Ong, Management Consultant and Leader in Social Policy and Change, to bring you her insights on financial feminism, applying an intersectional feminist lens to conversations about money, opportunities and areas to address, and even some handy financial apps for those after some digital support. Read more below.
Welcome, Stacey! Thanks for joining us on the EQI blog. Can you tell us a little bit about you and the work you do?
Hello and thank you for inviting me! It’s a pleasure to continue my relationship with EQI and your fabulous team. I’m a management consultant, an Australian-born Malaysian Chinese woman, a feminist, a foodie, a wannabe yogi, an economist and a champion for all things equity and inclusion and that includes financial inclusion! I recently left PricewaterhouseCoopers where I was a leader in their government practice and staff lead for the cultural diversity and inclusion network to start my own consulting practice focusing on social policy, social impact and equality, diversity and inclusion. We work across all sectors – government, NFP and corporate – in policy and strategy, program design and consultation. I’m also deeply committed to the community services sector and serve on the board of Domestic Violence Victoria, the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria and the subcommittee of Our Watch. So, to any of your readers, please get in touch if you have an interesting social change issue that you would like support on!
Obviously feminist financials can mean different things to different people. When you think about feminist financials, or being a ‘financial feminist’, what does that mean to you?
The Beijing Declaration affirmed UN commitment to the ‘empowerment and advancement of women… to realise their full potential in society and shape their lives in accordance with their own aspirations’. Financial independence, income, and wealth are critical enablers to realise one’s own potential. Money is a form of power, and women and girls are systemically excluded from understanding it, using it, and building it – particularly women and girls of colour. Women are conditioned to believe a range of negative beliefs about money and financial capability that are untrue and only serve to entrench gender inequality. From the belief that girls are not good at maths and finance, to making lots of money is evil, to the ‘nice girl’ belief that I should make just enough money for my needs but nothing more. Being a financial feminist, to me, means that I strive for a world where women and girls are not just financially free but are financially powerful and abundant. I would like to see the system broken and reset, so that women have doors opened to us to reach our potential – and that includes generating abundant financial income and wealth.
In Australia, the government just released the budget which we’ve yet again seen miss the mark in many areas, including in supporting women and addressing the climate crisis, among others. How do you see this impacting the Australian financial landscape, and what, if any, do you see as potential gendered impacts?
What I think was missing from the budget was reform and investment in our future – so things like a plan for opening up the country and supporting skilled migration, investment in renewable energies and higher education, and removing structural barriers to women’s participation in the economy – things that will lay the foundation for productivity improvement and growth in the future. There was a lot of spending on things that are worthwhile like aged care and mental health, but less on reform to build future productivity and wellbeing.
The Australian budget included a women’s budget statement which is useful to see what investment was targeted towards women, but it’s just as important to also look at the things that were not in the statement. If we made a men’s budget statement, what would it say? We could be really transparent and identify all of the funding that largely benefits the middle class and wealthy men and continues to entrench financial inequality - that would be illuminating. Things like the personal income tax cuts, infrastructure spending, apprenticeship funding are all more likely to benefit men.
More than anything, I see it as a missed opportunity. We know that family violence increased during COVID as women were at home with violent partners for extended periods of time, with the added stress of health and financial concerns. We know that women’s employment was disproportionately impacted by COVID as industries such as retail and hospitality, were shut down for periods of time. And we know that women bore the majority of the caregiving burden during COVID. If we acknowledge that COVID has increased inequality, there are a range of measures that we could take to address it rather than to do the same as what we did before – childcare, superannuation, education, sexual harassment. I’d like to see some radical change in these systems to not only remove barriers (equality) but actively support and encourage women to learn, earn and invest (equity).
When we talk about money and women, conversations often gravitate towards the gender discrimination gap, but there are so many more parts of the equation. What else should we be talking about?
There are so many things that are important to talk about with women and money!
We can take a lifecycle view and look at what we teach girls from a young age about money and earning money. Did you know that girls on average earn less pocket money than boys? And some studies have shown that the gender pay gap emerges even as teenagers in low-skilled jobs. Girls are socially conditioned to believe that they are not as good with money and discrimination about income generation starts so early.
Then if we talk about the gender pay gap, it only focuses on women who are in paid work, but there are an estimated 4.1 million women who aren’t in the paid workforce or looking for work (they are in the workforce for sure – they are just doing unpaid and largely invisible work). There are over 330,000 looking for work and there are women who are in the workforce but would like to work more than they currently do.
We have to ask ourselves, how have we structured our social and economic structures and norms to entrench barriers to women making money and accumulating wealth? Things like rigid gender roles in the home where women do the majority of housework and caring is a systemic barrier to women working, earning and accumulating wealth. I recently learned that an indicator of whether someone enters aged care is whether you have a daughter or not! Shocking but also not shocking. If you are elderly and have a daughter, the social expectation is that the daughter will care for you but if you have a son, you’re off to an aged care facility!
Women undertake a huge proportion of unpaid labour in this economy, and it simply couldn’t function without women’s work. One study of unpaid labour by PwC in 2017, estimated that the value of the unpaid economy was at around $565 billion – around a third of the economy – and the vast majority of this is childcare. What would our society and economy look like if we genuinely valued women’s labour? Caring for children – if we look at it in transactional terms - benefits this current generation because they are the future taxpayers that fund government services. We expect the burden to be borne by individuals in terms of caring effort and foregone income, but the benefits are borne by the entire community. What if we saw women’s caregiving as an investment for the entire community and future economy?
This wonderful quote by Melinda Gates pretty much sums it up “Girls today will spend hundreds of thousands more hours than boys doing unpaid work simply because society assumes it's their responsibility”. And I would add, the converse is that boys are expected to go out and earn money, which means they get the learning and development, personal growth, self-esteem, income and status that is associated with paid work.
And of the women that do work in paid employment, there is a gender pay gap, a glass ceiling, sexual harassment and sex discrimination. Then if a woman chooses to have children and take time out from the paid workforce (again, parenting is actually WORK), she loses all of her superannuation earnings for the time that she has taken off. There is evidence to highlight a 35% gap in super between men and women. In my own life, I took 3 years of parental leave in total, one year for each child and worked four years part-time. I did the sums and just the foregone super contributions, during parental leave, adds up to an extra $200,000 in retirement income. That’s a lot of income and insurance should anything go awry with my health or my family’s health when I’m no longer in paid employment.
Then there are women entrepreneurs and there’s systemic inequality for women founders to attract capital investment in their enterprises.
At every step of our lives, from when we are very young, women and girls are systematically excluded from learning, earning, saving and investing. And then because society conditions us, it’s very easy to internalise those barriers and discrimination and not to continue to question and challenge. Ok, rant over.
And further to this, how can we apply an intersectional feminist lens to conversations about money and finance? What’s missing from the current conversation?
Yes – let’s talk about intersecting and compounding effects of inequality, discrimination and exclusion on the capacity to build wealth! I answered the last question within the frame of living and working within a capitalist economy, with implicit assumptions that individual accumulation of financial wealth is what we are all aiming for. But when I think about taking an intersectional feminist lens – we can talk about how there are structural and compounding barriers and exclusion for women of colour, non-binary people and women with a disability within this frame - or we can talk about the frame and structure of our society and economy itself.
We can talk about what it means to build our collective wealth in broader terms than just financial. We can talk about building wealth of wellbeing that includes our physical and mental health, our connections to people and community and place, wealth of education and learning as well as financial wealth. I would like to see us not only break systemic barriers and exclusion for all women to learn, earn, save, invest and accumulate wealth, BUT ALSO create new systems and new platforms for building the collective wellbeing of women. I’m sure there’s a startup idea in there somewhere!
What are your top tips for someone who is wanting to feel more confident and adopt a feminist lens in this space?
Hmmm, I think you just have to start the conversation and not put pressure on yourself to have all the answers, I certainly don’t! But if you approach finances and intersectional feminism from an open mindset, with a view to identifying systemic barriers and discrimination - including gender, race, sexuality, ability etc.- then you’re off to a good start. Be curious and joyful about money and finance. At the risk of sounding super cheesy – money and finance can be fun!
Best apps or tools to support someone in building confidence when it comes to finances, money, saving, budgeting, earning, etc?
So many things to recommend! There are many fabulous resources out there such as She’s on the Money, my friend’s podcast Flux for business news, and Allyson Byrd for a spiritual take on abundance and wealth generation. Oh! and a huge plug to Verve Super – I had the pleasure of meeting Christina at the Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards a couple of years ago – and the work they are doing in women’s super is amazing.
And last but not least, what are you hoping to see change in this space in the future? And what are you looking forward to right now?
I’m fired up about a lot of things right now, but my top three things would be:
- Childcare – let’s shift the conversation away from it being a micro decision about whether a woman will earn enough income to justify childcare fees, to a society-wide conversation about whether we value caregiving and sharing the burden of that cost across society.
- Superannuation – women who are parenting, and therefore not in paid employment with partners, should have equal superannuation contributions from their partner’s income. And establishing superannuation contributions by government for those who are doing unpaid work of caregiving.
- Parental leave – looking at Scandinavian countries’ changes to embed parental leave for fathers in legislation on a use it or lose it basis – equal caregiving from birth has significant positive benefits for father’s relationships with their children but also, of course, on the mother’s workload, wellbeing, and future participation in the workforce.
- Financial education targeted at girls in schools – empowering girls from a young age to think about money and their financial future.
- Valuing unpaid labour – I don’t necessarily think that monetising unpaid labour is the right answer, but there is something about making it visible and valued.
- Female labour force participation – McKinsey did a study in 2015 that estimated that raising female labour force participation would grow the global economy by $12 trillion per annum (all regions would add at least an 8% in additional GDP!) – we need to remove the barriers for women who want to work.
- A population-wide social approach to preventing and responding to violence against women in addition to a criminal justice response – this issue is too prevalent and too entrenched in cultural norms for our criminal justice system to provide an adequate response.
So, that was a lot more than three things!