Women are bearing the brunt of the spiralling cost of living, with rent rises, gender pay gaps, period poverty and increasing homelessness creating a perfect storm for those on the Northern Beaches and beyond.

Only a lucky few are immune as the highest inflation in 30 years continues to batter Sydney, and women – often employed in part-time, lower paid, harder-hit sectors and held back by historically lower wages – are faring worst as finances fizzle.

With average female earnings of 87 cents per men’s $1, making them $253.50 worse off every week, there is a ‘handbrake on women’s ability to make ends meet,’ says Mary Wooldridge, director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. It is these pre-existing inequalities that are making the rises, as much as 11 per cent for childcare and 24 per cent for electricity, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, that much harder for women to bear.

The sandwich generation in particular – caught between the demands of young families and elderly parents – have seen careers cleaved by childcare, shattering earning potential. NSW Minister for Women, Jodie Harrison, tells Peninsula Living Pittwater (PL): “Women on average are paid 11.8 per cent less than men, so, when prices rise, a larger proportion is spent on essential items, reducing disposable income and savings and negatively impacting immediate and long-term financial security and quality of life.”

As many mums now have no choice but to head back to the office to make ends meet, their burden grows, with daycare fees, as much as $200 a day, depleting exhausted budgets. Women make up 69 per cent of all part-time employees across the country, finds the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute. Single mums, who make up 80 per cent of Australia’s single parent families, find their income is often outweighed by childcare costs.

The really meaty topic is housing, as the simmering rental crisis boils over on the Northern Beaches, with the area suffering from some of the highest levels of housing stress in the country. As homeowners who paid pandemic-induced peak prices fight to cover mortgages, tenants are up against 30 per cent rent spirals, pushing prices to well over $1,000 a week, finds Domain. For a woman on the average female weekly pay of $1,697, more than 40 per cent of that income will now go on rent, and as for buying, it’s a seven-year steep climb to reach the golden deposit at 30 per cent savings a week. This is a mountain for most, especially as Pittwater suffers from some of the worst housing affordability in the country.

“Housing affordability is forcing women to leave the area they feel is home.”
Narelle Hand, Northern Beaches Women’s Shelter

Teacher and single mother of four, Lisa Firman, who lived in Warriewood for 14 years, tells PL: “Following my separation, I hunted for an affordable rental close to work and my children’s school, but because I was working part-time, I kept losing out to double-income families,” she explains. The stress took a ‘huge toll’ on her mental health. “After months of stressful searching, I signed a lease on a house in Warriewood’s Shearwater Estate at $1,350 a week, but the financial strain was just too much, forcing me to relocate to where I grew up, Schofields in Western Sydney, where I pay $660 a week.”

As prices surge, the threat of homelessness looms. Women aged over 55 are now Australia’s fastest growing homeless demographic, Housing for the Aged Action Group reveals, with 240,000 homeless women and a further 165,000 aged 45 to 54 at risk due to sky-high costs, job losses or relationship breakdowns. Narelle Hand, manager of Northern Beaches Women’s Shelter (NBWS), tells PL that housing affordability is ‘forcing women to leave the area they feel is home’.

Former Warriewood resident and mother of four, Lisa Firman, pictured with her children, was forced to leave the Beaches due to rental stress

“The financial strain was just too much, forcing me to relocate to where I grew up – Schofields in Western Sydney.”

Lisa Firman, former Warriewood resident and single mother of four

“Our services are at full capacity and we turn away many women each month, which will only increase if we do not break the cycle of the housing crisis,” she says, adding that a ‘common conversation’ with women who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness, is the reality that they cannot afford to live here anymore.

Safety is also now unaffordable for many female victims of domestic family violence, and while government-funded rent supplements for up to three years can help to cover transitional housing, advocates argue that permanent, affordable and safe housing is what is truly needed.

The NSW Government has announced a $224 million ‘essential housing package’ to deliver affordable accommodation, alongside annual pre-school fee relief of up to $4,220, Minister Harrison says. She adds that plans are also afoot to address the gender pay gap by abolishing public sector wage caps, as in NSW, women make up 66 per cent of this workforce. Beyond the workplace, mature women are increasingly at risk of ‘material deprivation’ as longer life expectancies clash with lower median superannuation balances – as much as 23 per cent less than men, finds the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, due to fragmented working lives.

NSW Minister for Women, Jodie Harrison, says the government is working to address gender pay gaps

Financial stresses are rippling into all aspects of life, such as mental health, with female mental health body, Liptember Foundation, revealing that more than half of Australian women are now depressed, but just 31 per cent – up from 22 a year ago – seek help. “Financial pressures are worsening women’s mental health, yet a growing number now can’t afford to seek the help they so desperately need,” says Liptember founder Luke Morris. He calls it a ‘mental health paradox’.

Living expense concerns and the drying up of disposable income were named by women as being the key culprits. While uniquely female health struggles, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, also make women 50 per cent more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety, lowering earning power.

Price rises have hit menstrual products despite the removal of GST, soaring from $8.50 per item to an August 2023 peak of $11.10 across major Australian supermarkets, finds money saving app, WiseList. Tipping a lifetime spend on such items to more than $10,000, female equality charity Plan International warns that six in 10 Australian women are now struggling with period poverty.

With no sign of ballooning costs deflating, focusing on the meaty issues – housing, pay and health – will go some way to navigating the crisis. The delivery of long-term, safe and affordable housing for women, alongside prioritising those escaping domestic violence is key. Also crucial is the willingness of employers to enhance female career development and earnings by committing to childcare, mental health and menopause strategies that empower women.

Northern Beaches Women’s Shelter’s Narelle Hand says the community also has a part to play, by offering ‘vacant properties at low cost’ and providing funding for women and children in need of transitional accommodation. “More needs to be done.”


By Catherine Lewis