ABS celebrates International Women's Day theme of Be Bold for Change

Women comprise more than half of Australia’s population, and while women today hold some of our nation’s most prestigious positions, for various reasons this has not always been the case. With International Women’s Day set to be celebrated on March the 8th, we here at the ABS have burrowed into our many data holdings to bring you some handy facts about Australia’s women, and how far we’ve come as a society in terms of recognising and harnessing their contribution and potential.

Some History

While there is little doubt that women existed prior to 1909, this was the year that saw the first celebration of women at a small socialist event in New York City. Things moved quickly from there, with Russian women celebrating International Women’s Day by 1913, and the Soviet Union declaring it a national holiday in 1917.

International Women’s Day was mainly marked in Eastern Europe in the subsequent decades, and went worldwide in 1977 when the United Nations invited member states to proclaim March the 8th as the day for women’s rights and world peace.

The ABS (and its forerunners) has been around since 1905, taking the nation’s pulse and providing data for the betterment of Australia’s people. Many of the policies to advance the cause of Australia’s women have been informed by ABS data, so here are some selected stats that help to tell the story of women between the mid-1970s (when IWD became a global event) and today… with a couple of bonus stats from 100 years ago thrown in!

Being born

While Australia has spent the last century near the top of global tables for life expectancy, the story has got better over time, especially for women. If you were a woman born in Australia between 1900 and 1910, you had a life expectancy of 58.8 years. Not even long enough to get access to cheaper bus tickets. Thanks in part to advances in health, sanitation and safety, women born in the mid-1970s could expect to live for an average of 76.5 years. But there’s never been a better time to get born in Australia than today, with our newest females having a life expectancy of 84.4 years (it’s 80.4 for males).

Life expectancy at birth


Education means a lot more than earning certificates, it enables people to realise their potential and participate more fully in a productive society.

Along with increasing high school completion rates, the last four decades have seen Australian women increasingly obtaining non-school qualifications. In the late 1980s, fewer than one in three women aged 15-64 had a non-school qualification, and this rose to one in two by 2008. Today, around 58% of women aged 15-74 have undertaken study outside of school.

And in terms of study outside of school, university education is increasingly popular among Australian women. In 1976, there were 95,899 male university students in Australia, but only 58,061 female ones. But significant changes in the subsequent decades resulted in 933,100 female students studying at diploma level or higher in 2016, and 700,600 men.

Non-school qualification


One of the major changes in Australian society in recent decades has been a steady increase in female participation in the workforce. Improved education, smaller family sizes, and changing social norms have coincided with women accessing a wider range of careers, and spending more years in formal employment. In the late 1970s, fewer than 44% of women of working age were in the labour force, and that figure is now almost 60%. This is still lower than the participation rate for males (around 70% in 2017), but the gap is narrowing.

Women continue to be more commonly engaged in part time work than men, and are also more likely to work in caring professions such as such as health, aged care, and early childhood education. For example, almost 80% of people currently working in the Health Care and Social Assistance industry are female. There are, however, ongoing efforts to increase gender diversity in traditionally male industries, to enable Australia’s economy to further benefit from the professional abilities of women.

Labour force participation rate


As education and career options have increased for Australian women, so too has the average age at which they first marry. This has risen from 21 years of age in 1975, to 28.5 years in 2015. Back in the early 1970s, almost 85 per cent of Australian women aged 25-29 were married, and this has now fallen to around a third. The contrast is even greater for women aged 20-24 over this period, 62% of women this age in the 1970s were married, but now it’s under 10%.

Age of brides at marriage


While Australia’s population is larger than ever, Australian women are on average having fewer children, and having them later in life. Our earliest data on fertility rate comes from 1921, when the average Australian woman had 3.1 children in her lifetime. This number had fallen to 2.1 by 1975, and the most recent data has it at 1.8 children. In 2015, the median age for women at first birth was 29.3, around five years older than in 1975.

But while birth rates have been falling, infant mortality rates in Australia have also fallen hugely over the decades, meaning that more of the children who are born make it through those crucial first months of life. Back in 1913, the infant mortality rate was 72.2 per 1,000 live births, but this plunged to 14.3 by 1975, and fell further to just 3.2 by 2015; the lowest rate in our history.


Women have longer life expectancies than men, and part of this may be due to their healthier habits.

According to the 2014-15 National Health Survey women were much less likely to drink at risky levels than men were (9 per cent compared to 24 per cent). Women are also less likely to smoke on a daily basis, with 12.1 per cent of females and 16.9 per cent of males reporting to smoke daily.

Around 56 per cent of women were likely to be overweight or obese in 2014-15, compared with 71 per cent of men. However, women were less likely to be active than men, with 53 per cent of women aged 18-64 participating in sufficient physical activity a week to meet the guidelines, compared to 58 per cent of men. Getting our girls and women more active has been a public health priority in recent years.

Women were better at getting their two fruit and five veg a day with 55 per cent of women meeting the fruit consumption guidelines, and 10 per cent meeting the vegetable consumption guidelines. This is compared to 44 per cent of men who ate enough fruit, and 4 per cent who ate the recommended amount vegetables a day. So while there’s a salary gap between the genders, there’s also a celery gap.

Work / Life Balance

While the increased workforce participation of Australian women has benefited the nation enormously, there’s a bit more to it than that. For those who care for someone with a disability, Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers data shows that more than two thirds of these primary informal carers are women, and this usually involves caring for a family member. Juggling multiple life roles isn’t always easy.

42 per cent of women felt they were often rushed or pressed for time in 2007, while 35 per cent of men said the same thing. Trying to balance work and family responsibilities and having too much to do/ too many demands placed upon them were the main reason cited by women for feeling this way (31 per cent and 19 per cent respectively). Trying to balance work and family responsibilities and pressure of work/study were the main reasons cited by men (27 per cent and 26 per cent).

Women according to the 2006 Time Use Survey spent less of their day on recreation and leisure than men (16 per cent of their day for women compared to 19 per cent for men) but spent nearly double their time on domestic activities than men (12 per cent compared to 7 per cent).

While there is no doubt that the data indicates that great strides have been made in terms of women’s opportunity and equality in recent decades, it also highlights some stubborn areas that have scope for improvement.

The global theme of International Women’s Day 2017 is “Be bold for change”, and you can find out more about the event, see what’s on, and access more resources via the official website here.

Some significant dates for International Women's Day and women in Australia

1861 – Propertied women in South Australia granted the vote in local elections (but not parliamentary elections) in 1861

1883 - Bella Guerin the first woman to graduate from an Australian university when she completed her Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne

1884 - Henrietta Dugdale formed the first Australian women's suffrage society in Melbourne

1895 – Women allowed to vote in South Australian parliamentary elections and allowed to stand for office

1899 - Western Australia granted voting rights to women

1902 - Women started service in the Australian military with the formation of the Australian Army Nursing Service

1902 – Australia first country in the world to give women the right to vote in federal elections and the right to be elected to parliament

1909 - First National Woman's Day (NWD) observed in United States on 28 February.

1911 - International Women's Day celebrated for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19 March

1912 - Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie, Australia’s first female Olympians.

1913 - International Women's Day transferred to 8 March and this day has remained the global date for International Women's Day ever since

1920 - Edith Cowan the first woman elected to an Australian parliament.

1922 - Country Women’s Association branch formed in Australia

1932 – Maude Bonney became the first woman to circumnavigate Australia by air

1949 - Dame Enid Lyons the first woman to hold a Cabinet post in Federal Parliament

1961 – Opera singer Dame Joan Sutherland became first woman anointed Australian of the Year

1972 – Kerry Anne Wells the first Australian to be crowned Miss Universe

1974 - Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration granted women the full adult wage

1975 – International Women's Day celebrated for the first time by the United Nations

1981 – Ita Buttrose became the first woman to become editor of a major Australian newspaper, The Daily Telegraph

1989 - Rosemary Follett became the first woman elected to lead a state or territory when elected Chief Minister of the ACT

2008 – Quentin Bryce first female Governor General of Australia

2009 – Elizabeth Blackburn first Australian women announced a Nobel laureate

2010 - Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister

2011 – The Australian Defence Force announced women will be allowed in frontline roles by 2016

2015 – Michelle Payne becomes the first female jockey to ride a winner in the Melbourne Cup

2017 – Susan Kiefel first female chief justice of the high court