When it comes to power and influence in Australia, it’s easy – a masculine cliché, in fact – to conjure an image of men in pinstripe suits leaning back in leather-bound chairs, puffing on cigars. The reality, however, is very different.
The real movers and shakers in Australia aren’t the male dinosaurs that continue to dominate our boardrooms (though, admittedly, this is slowly changing, despite the glass ceiling). Rather, it is a largely unacknowledged and perhaps undervalued section of the community that is powering the country – the single woman.
“Ever since the late ’90s, the number of single women in Australia has been increasing for a whole raft of reasons,” says demographer Bernard Salt.
“It’s a purely modern phenomenon because for 200 years Australia was a male-dominated society, not only in terms of power, but in sheer numbers. That is changing and will continue to change. There’s something happening here that is the first surge of a ripple that will become a wave.”
Right across the country and particularly in our cities, women are staying single for longer than ever before. Twenty years ago, the median age for a woman to marry was 25.9. Now that figure is 29.2 years. Many believe that next year’s Census might see it jump beyond 30.
More importantly, the numbers of single women are expanding, too. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of single women under 45 increased from 1.8 million to 1.95 million, a jump of 150,000. Single women of all ages increased by 318,675 during the same period – up to 3,407,039. Some of this is explained by our high annual 1.8 per cent population growth, but it also reflects major social changes. That is why the number of single women under 45 is significant, not just for what it says about the present, but also for what it says about our future.
Many choose to commit to career and lifestyle rather than a marriage. A large proportion has a degree. Nearly 300,000 single women have incomes in excess of $52,000, with 33,000 of them earning $104,000 or more.
“These are employed, earning, financially independent women,” says demographer Mark McCrindle.
“And that’s quite a growth, particularly in the 25 to 34 demographic among women, where we find that 40 per cent of single women have a tertiary qualification as opposed to 28 per cent of men in the same age group. Therefore, women are more formally educated and with education often comes increased income. This is a generation who is beginning to out-earn its male counterparts and we are starting to see that in the data.”
Moreover, these numbers will only expand in coming years.
“As a proportion of the population, more women than men have gone on to tertiary education since 1982,” says author and former political journalist George Megalogenis.
“About 65 per cent of professional workers in Australia are – guess what – women. And I’d be pretty confident that most of them aren’t married.”
As such, marketers realised the potential of single women years ago. Many small cars are marketed directly at single women. The Honda Jazz, Toyota Echo, Ford Festiva and Volkswagon Polo are just a small selection of cars marketed to the single, urban woman.
“Advertisements for these vehicles all show a woman zipping through the inner city, whipping the froth off a cappuccino, laughing and smiling because she is at the centre of her friends and boyfriend’s world,” says Bernard Salt.
“The car market is very sophisticated. Ads are like this for a reason and that’s because single women are congregating in large numbers in and around our city centres.”
Even Alfa Romeo – the classic male macho sports marque – targeted single corporate women in a campaign last year.
Smart developers know the value of the single woman, too. They are buying large numbers of inner city apartments where they are wooed by an emphasis on security, parking and high-end kitchens.
“The concierge that you see in many apartment blocks these days is rather like a father-figure, who they can ask for help moving a fridge and let him into the apartment without feeling threatened. They can drive home from work into the car park at night and go up to their apartment without thinking about security – that is all a way of connecting to single, corporate women, who can certainly afford their own apartments.”
Who is this woman? She is likely to drive her own car, own her apartment, have a degree (perhaps more than one) and be employed in a leadership or managerial role.
“They have the disposable income to allow them to pursue interests and travel that their counterparts with children out in the suburbs probably don’t have,” says Mark McCrindle.
“There is a focus for them on fitness and fashion, and leadership style. It’s a powerful, self-assured group and Julie Bishop is probably its pin-up girl.”
And where do single women live? They are located largely down the eastern seaboard – in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and along Queensland’s Gold Coast.
Figures show single women congregate in suburbs around the CBD in each of these urban areas. In Melbourne, it’s in the trendy Docklands, Southbank, South Yarra and Kensington as well as Fitzroy Gardens and Jolimont around the MCG.
In Sydney, look to the inner west – Balmain, Rozelle and Lilyfield – as well as Paddington, Potts Point, Darling Point and Woolloomooloo in the east and on the North Shore in Cammeray, Crow’s Nest and Cremorne.
In Brisbane, try the rejuvenated riverside suburbs of West End, Highgate Hill and Kangaroo Point in the south, St Lucia (near the University of Queensland) and Paddington and Spring Hill in the north.
Late last year, the importance of this emerging group came sharply into focus at the national conference of the National Party, whose power base is largely rural and regional Australia.
Outgoing National Women’s Federal Council President Dr Jacky Abbott urged the party to consider single women as a matter of political expediency.
“At the most, single women represent 15 to 16 per cent of the total voting public and 42 per cent of the female population, but as a group identified and engaged by political parties, they’re almost invisible,” says Dr Abbott.
“In the US, where I first came across figures relating to the rise of the single woman – there, single women account for half the female vote, now 56 million, up from 45 million in 2000 – political parties are going all out to provide this block with a reason to vote for them.
“From time to time, new socio-economic groupings do appear and this, I believe, is one of them. In regional centres across the country, single women run many of the businesses that line our main streets. It’s not just an urban phenomenon.”
Dr Abbott says that what single women offer for the National Party is the opportunity to go beyond the current supporters that it already has.
“What I was proposing was that we, as the conservative parties, should start to promote women’s issues as a way to at first engage and ultimately gain the support of this voting group. Women in country and regional areas already suffer from discrimination in terms of education and opportunity in the workplace – as do men – but if we can look at our regional women and help move them forward, then that, at least, would be progress.”
What political parties should do is shed the worn-out clichés about single women.
“Women are buying their own houses now,” says Dr Abbott.
“Those days of the Boston Marriage, where two women had to join up to raise enough for a home loan, are gone. Women are buying their own gorgeous jewellery to wear on their fingers, instead of an engagement ring.”
And it’s not surprising that such a trend exists, says Bernard Salt.
“It’s a try-before-you-buy situation,” he says.
“Many women have significant relationships in their 20s, but no longer commit to marriage, where in the ’50s and ’60s, women and men had to jump right in with both feet. There wasn’t an opportunity for sexual or social exploration.
“One in two relationships break down within 10 years, so many women are without a committed relationship again during their late 30s and early 40s.”
Single women, of course, can be single after a break-up, but also be parents. That sole parent group is also significant politically, in that it sits outside the “traditional” or “working” family often discussed by the two major parties.
“In Australia, the main party-political thought is that the swinging voter is a couple with two children,” says George Megalogenis, author of Faultlines: Race, Work And The Politics Of Changing Australia.
“Politicians think about this in one of three ways – Dad working full-time with Mum working part-time, both working full-time, or Dad working full-time and Mum at home.
“What the parties don’t understand – and they may never have really understood – is that a much larger proportion of the population is not even in a family. The back of the Census figures shows a vast number of people living alone – people who have never married, people who are divorced, people who have never had children – and that the electorate is much more complex.
“The political parties are talking to an increasingly smaller part of the population as they are stuck in this idea that everybody’s in a couple relationship with kids.”
However, George goes much further than the influence of sole parents. He suggests it is single women driving much of the economic change in Australia since the Hawke-Keating era.
“The open economy that we’ve been building for the past few 15 years – the Hawke-Keating, Howard-Costello approach – would have conked out at the first speed hump in the early ’90s if not for the professional female worker because the economy switched to services and it’s a better educated workforce. That’s where a lot of the energy is in the economy now,” he says.
“It’s very difficult to convince people of this, as many still say guys in suits run the country and guys in suits run all the boards. There are still a lot of men on boards, but go down a rung on the corporate ladder and you might find that many of those senior people are women, and single women at that.
“There is a disconnect between the community, the real economy and the country’s power structures, both political and business.
“Where’s the brain power in this economy? The economy has been operating on a female brain for about the past 10 or 15 years, pretty much since the loss of manufacturing as the number one employer. It’s a pink-collar economy, not a blue-collar one.”
“This isn’t just a blip on the radar,” says Dr Jacky Abbott. “This is a real cultural change that’s only going to keep going. It’s going to have profound effects on the way we live our lives.”
And that’s a sentiment with which George Megalogenis agrees.
“At some point, we will all wake up and the new normal will have announced itself, and everyone will say, ‘Of course, that had to happen,” he says.
“At the moment, we’re still working it all out.
“The electorate has turned our politicians into a bunch of oncers. They’re dissatisfied. They’re saying, ‘You’re not even speaking for the Australian reality.’ The single woman needs to been seen as an equal alongside the young educated bloke and the couple family.”