HomeFinanceSuperannuationSuperannuation system failing women and low-income earners, survey finds

Superannuation system failing women and low-income earners, survey finds

Antonia Settle, The University of Melbourne

Most Australians think the superannuation system is unfair, with only one in three agreeing the retirement savings scheme is fair for most Australians, according to a survey conducted for the University of Melbourne.

In fact, only about half of those surveyed agreed superannuation works well for them.

These results contradict a conventional view based on earlier studies and held by academics and many in the personal finance sector, that Australians give little thought to superannuation.

A 2013 survey found Australians have poor knowledge of how the superannuation system works, while another study in 2022 highlighted low financial literacy in general.

Australians also showed little interest in superannuation, according to a 2020 Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet survey, with few Australians showing interest in reading their superannuation statements, choosing their fund or making voluntary contributions.

A large pile of unopened letter on a desk top
A 2020 survey found many Australians were not interested in reading their superannuation statements. Shutterstock

With Australian households seen as uninformed and uninterested, their opinions tend to be left out of the public debate. We hear much about the gender pension gap, for example, but little about what women actually think about superannuation.

Similarly, the distribution of tax advantage in superannuation is hotly debated by economists but survey data tends to refrain from asking households what they think about equity in the superannuation system.

The University of Melbourne survey of 1003 Australians was undertaken by Roy Morgan Research in April.

Its results show women and low-income households are widely seen as disadvantaged in the superannuation system.

In fact, only one in five Australians sees the superannuation system as well suited to the needs of women and low-income households, while 70 per cent believe super favours wealthy households.

This suggests that although Australians may show little interest in the management of their super accounts and may report they find the system confusing or even boring, they are surprisingly aware of how superannuation is distributed.

Women, singles and low-income earners miss out

The federal government’s 2020 Retirement Income Review documents these gaps. Renters, women, uncoupled households and those on low incomes fare poorly in the retirement income system.

With little super to supplement the public pension, these groups are vastly over-represented in elderly poverty statistics, which are among the highest in the OECD.

Mirroring the gaps in the superannuation system reported by the review, the University of Melbourne survey shows that it is outright homeowners and those who are married who believe the superannuation system works well.

Concerns the system works poorly for women and low-income households are strongest among women and low-income households. Only one in three renters believe the superannuation system meets their needs.

This suggests individuals’ concerns about fairness in the superannuation system are driven by their own experiences of disadvantage, regardless of financial literacy.

This is consistent with my own research into household attitudes to superannuation, which showed some resentment among women who were well aware their male partners had substantially higher superannuation balances than they did.

This all matters for policymakers.

Why public perceptions are important

In the short term, these results suggest public support for making super fairer is likely to be stronger than previously thought. Recent government changes to tax concessions on large balances, for example, could have gone much further without losing support from the 70 per cent of households that think the system favours the wealthy.

But it matters for the longer term too.

Public perceptions of fairness, effectiveness and efficiency are crucial to policy sustainability. This is well established in the academic literature from B Ebbinghaus, 2021 and H Chung et al., and accepted by the Retirement Income Review.

The review assessed the public’s confidence in the system to both “deliver an adequate retirement income for them(selves) and (to) generate adequate outcomes across society”.

As the review makes clear, the system must avoid a loss of public confidence from perceptions of unfairness.

Yet perceptions of unfairness are exactly what the University of Melbourne results suggest. This would have been clearer to policymakers if they asked earlier.

Do you think the super system is fair for all? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Also read: What to consider before switching super funds

Antonia Settle, Academic (McKenzie Postdoctoral Research Fellow), The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

The Conversation
The Conversationhttps://theconversation.com/au/who-we-are
The Conversation Australia and New Zealand is a unique collaboration between academics and journalists that is the world’s leading publisher of research-based news and analysis.


  1. While I agree that some people in society have not had real advantage of super there are many many others that sacrificed dollars into super that they could otherwise have spent and then only to be disadvantaged by people that are on the pension with a little less super. For me every person that has worked paid taxes should receive a pension just like other countries. It annoys me when I walk into the chemist my wife’s medication for cancer treatment since 2014 costs hundreds of dollars a month and the people on pension pay very very little and then the CTG is even less. The system is HEAVILY in favour of Poorer people already by a long shot but it gets votes. My wife was a nurse for 40 years decided to put money into her super using her fortitude, now she is penalised heavily no pension at all and yet people we know are actually better off on the pension so get very frustrated with articles like this it is always one-sided. The superannuation system is good. Women will catch up in time it just will not happen in two seconds it makes good headlines. Also a lot of academics who do these studies go on to receive huge pensions in retirement from the government so in some respects I am very very suspect of papers and surveys done by many academics today due to the one way attitudes that are portrayed in our Universities today. When I went to University lecturers promoted freedom of speech. Now they do not so academic papers become worthless in some respects. What should be investigated is the overly generous government paid worker pensions (any academics out there will to do that I GUESS NOT) however no one seems to write about that do they it is always an attack on people who pay more taxes.

  2. Guess what? LIFE IS NOT FAIR!
    Unless you have a system where EVERYONE gets the same super amount (much like a universal pension) there will always be those who look over the fence and want what their neighbour has. What they always miss in this culture of envy is that the neighbour may be no better off than themselves, but they made different decisions with the income they had. Assuming people can cover their recurrent basic needs such as rent/mortgage, food, utilities, etc it’s what you do with the leftover amounts. Splash it on the latest and greatest tech, upgraded car, new everything inside the home, holidays – frequently overseas – wining and dining etc, etc then you cannot expect to have any surplus cash. However, taking the leftover money and putting say 10% of it directly into super will eventuate in a far higher balance come retirement. But people can’t be bothered thinking about retirement until it is literally on the doorstep. That is too late and then they start the whinging and envy politics over those who thought ahead.. The same ‘rules’ are available to everyone but few even investigate how to make them work in their personal situation. Far easier to complain about those who do then expect those who do to fork out more to pay for those who made different decisions.

    Yes there are those who don’t have super because they never worked (regardless of the reason) perhaps due to genuine disability and those people should be taken care of but super is not the answer to that issue.

    As for middle-aged women who chose never to work then divorce and complain they have no super (did they see their husbands as meal tickets?) all I can say is their lawyer didn’t do their job. Super can be included in the splitting of assets which means of course that neither will have the amount they once thought BUT it would be ‘fair’!

    I am fed up with the envy-politics levelled at anyone who has worked hard and provided for their future, whether that is home ownership or a reasonable super balance. People that have these things have worked hard, thought ahead and provided for themselves the best way they knew how and that takes dedication and sacrifice of a quick hit for long-term gain. Leave them alone.

  3. Why would any normal free thinking person be interested in a collaboration between journalists and academics. So called journalists are the vermins of society, blowing daily issues out of proportion for their own monetary and professional gain. They are look down upon by used car salesman and real estate agents, that’s their true position in life. As for academics, what the hell would they know about the real world. They live in their own bubble, most have never had a real job, having studied all their lives and whatever so-called knowledge they have, has come out of books or these days the internet. They possess little or no practical knowledge in any subject. They generally speak very well, know which fork to use at a free lunch and or dinner and associate generally with their own kind. So if you wish to entertain the opinions of such people, who would have as much idea of what’s going on in the real world as Marvin the Martian, go for it. (And you wonder why Australia and most other Developed Countries are going down the tube) JACKA.

  4. Anything other than a universal pension will always be unfair because it distributes benefits unevenly. Superannuation is a prime example of that where the higher your income the greater the benefit. Government should provide the same benefits to everyone.

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