“Despite Australia’s continuous growth in the past few decades, 3 million people are still economically disadvantaged“
Of these, 739,000 are children. The Productivity Commission defines disadvantage as a multidimensional concept that goes beyond low income and also includes lack of opportunities as well as social exclusion. This is particularly important for disadvantaged females whose education and employability can oftentimes be overlooked at the expense of other, more immediate needs of the family, such as caring for other family members.
Acute economic disadvantage often means that girls don’t have the equipment and resources necessary to benefit from the same opportunities their peers from more privileged backgrounds enjoy. Deeply rooted disadvantage undermines the concept of meritocracy and equal opportunities. Without proper assistance, thousands of girls’ potential can remain unrealised.
Financial destitution is the main and most obvious form of acute economic disadvantage. However, there are many other forms of disadvantages as well. Family violence or dysfunction, substance abuse and low academic achievement in parents or the child’s primary caregiver are other contributors to the disadvantage that can shape students’ worldviews and life opportunities.
Rational choice theory, for instance, shows that families who suffer from social inequality use different sets of parameters to measure the value of pursuing education. For example, disadvantaged and uneducated parents might reason that it would be better for their children to get a job as soon as possible in order to earn money as opposed to incurring additional costs by pursuing education. On the other hand, economically advantaged families may view education as a long-term investment. The prism through which the economically disadvantaged view education is different from the prism through which the privileged view it.
Certain groups, due to stigma and marginalisation, are also more likely to suffer from a socioeconomic disadvantage:
Members of marginalised groups are not only physically alienated by living in isolated communities, but the classroom itself can also feel unwelcoming by not representing their values, cultures and languages, which can further discourage school attendance and educational aspirations.
Additionally, geographic isolation and a lack of resources cause students to miss school simply because they have no means to get to the school premises. Likewise, the physical distance from peers leads disadvantaged children to follow in the footsteps of their parents, as they have less exposure to what life could look like outside of their immediate environment.
Girls are particularly vulnerable in this context as they can often assume the role of the primary caregivers for needy or sick family members and, if education is accessible, are oftentimes second in line after their male counterparts.
All of these factors have an impact on how students perceive themselves and on how society as a whole perceives the economically disadvantaged.
Removing economic disadvantage in students is not as easy as giving family money. Many of the side effects of long-term disadvantage are deeply ingrained in children, affecting their aspirations and belief that they can change their circumstances. Tackling disadvantage, therefore, requires a holistic approach that addresses the financial, emotional and psychological barriers disadvantaged students face.
Addressing economic disadvantage in girls and offering them support in their education is particularly important. A 2018 study done by Acoss and the University of New South Wales shows that the majority of people in Australia living in poverty are women. Many of these live as single-parent families where the risk for intergenerational poverty is heightened. Likewise, divorced women or women facing unemployment are more at risk of poverty than men, so offering strong educational foundations is paramount to protecting girls’ long-term livelihood.
Other than the increased vulnerability in women, supporting them in their educational aspirations is proven to have many positive knock-on effects, both on their personal life and society as a whole. Increased levels of education in girls can:
Girls’ education is particularly important for addressing gender inequality and minimising the pay gap that exists in the workplace today. When disadvantaged women have less education than their more privileged counterparts, they face a limited skill set and, as a result, an even lower pay rate.
At Harding Miller Education Foundation, we’ve seen the difference early support can make in disadvantaged females’ lives and aspirations. Over the years, we’ve supported over 200 girls with more than $2 million in scholarships for year nine to year 12 by covering all their expenses and offering coaching and additional support to ensure they succeed. Our team has seen young girls from all backgrounds blossom into scholars who are excited about their future and life.
Our aim is to increase the number of scholarships we can offer each year so that more and more girls are pulled out of poverty and given equal opportunities. We work with individuals as well as corporate partners to increase our pool of funds and change the livelihood of girls who show academic potential but suffer from deeply rooted disadvantage. All of our partners receive quarterly reports of the student they support to see their progress and the difference their donation makes in the girls’ lives.