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Mind the gap, but there’s more to gender equality than pay parity

The quest for equal pay between men and women represents one of the oldest battle lines for feminism. The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) finds that women’s wages are now 17.4…

Equal pay is not the only obstacle women face in the labour market: there’s also higher unemployment, underemployment, and heightened risk of job insecurity. Victor

The quest for equal pay between men and women represents one of the oldest battle lines for feminism. The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) finds that women’s wages are now 17.4% lower than that of men. There has been no progress for twenty years.

The EOWA cites the poor representation of women in high salary jobs, time out of the workforce for caring, and the lower valuation of work in occupations were women are concentrated as explanations for the large disparity.Eva Cox emphasises gender discrimination while Mara Olekalns attributes a cause of the disparity to the difficulties women face in negotiating pay increases.

I propose that other aspects of women’s labour market disadvantage warrant more attention as explanations for gender wage disparity. I also argue that wage parity cannot be pursued as a “feminist” or equal opportunity goal in isolation from issues of female unemployment, underemployment, and entrapment in insecure and unsustainable jobs.

Without bringing these other labour market issues to the fore of feminist and equal opportunity goals, an exclusive goal of gender wage parity will at best serve the interests of a few in elite, secure occupations but is most likely to risk failing altogether which seems to be the current trend.

Unemployment and underemployment

Over the last 12 months, the female unemployment rate - 6% for full-time work - has hovered around one percentage point higher than that for males. It is also higher (5.3% compared to 4.9%) when unemployment for those seeking part time work is included. Close to 300,000 women are unemployed. These figures mean that more women struggle to find a job than men in relation to the overall size of the female workforce.

Underemployment has been consistently much higher for females than males over the 20 year period from 1990 to 2010, in both numerical and percentage terms. In 2010, almost half a million women (495,000) – or close to 10% of the female workforce - were estimated to be underemployed compared to 364,000 men. Altogether, around 15% of the female labour force has no work or not enough work.

Much has been made of women’s preferences for part time, “flexible” work to fit in with family obligations, but this theory does not explain why so many female workers need more work. I suggest they need more work to earn enough to live on.

Employment insecurity

Currently, 46% of employed women are in part-time work compared to 15% of employed men.

In addition to the problem of underemployment within many part-time jobs, more than 50 per cent of these jobs are also casual (as estimated by the Workplace Research Centre) and Preston and Barns.

According to the ABS, 23% of employed females (around 1.1 million) are casual workers, compared to 16% of men. A casual job is essentially a job paid on an hourly basis, which enables termination without notice. It is defined by the ABS as a job without paid leave entitlements.

Occupations in which women are concentrated are the ones where jobs have progressively become more insecure. The ABS notes the high level of casual jobs in areas such as retail and accommodation/food services, which have a very high concentration of female workers.

But other sectors have also become more insecure, such as “education and training”, which accounts for 11% of total female employment.

One example concerns the ongoing problem in the Victorian state school system, where 18% of teachers are on fixed term contracts.

The ACTU insecure jobs inquiry shows that insecure work has become embedded in industry and occupational sectors reliant on public contracting arrangements. Twenty-one per cent of employed females work in the industry category of “health care and social assistance”, where many jobs are contract and casual because of short and fixed-term funding arrangements.

Insecure workers are less likely to be members of unions and less likely to be in a position to bargain for better conditions or better pay. As one participant in my study of women in insecure jobs told me:

“There are only three full-time staff and the rest on contract part time, around 35 in all (a government funded community service in a regional centre). You’re well aware if you don’t get on with your employer you might find that when your contract is for renewal you might not be in the running for it so people tend to make a lot of compromises in work situation.”

My own research and the ACTU insecure jobs inquiry show the profoundly damaging effect of insecure employment on people’s lives and the associated risk of long term social disadvantage.

Rather than being a stepping stone to better employment, many workers become entrapped in insecure jobs over the long term. If a woman loses a secure job over the age of 40, there is a high risk that she will not find a comparable job again simply because the overall opportunity to gain such jobs is so limited. There is very little support for disadvantaged workers to obtain the skills and qualifications they need to obtain better quality jobs across the life course.

Onerous work conditions

Widespread employment insecurity also fosters onerous work conditions. I have quoted some examples in a recent article about women working to difficult performance requirements under rigorous on-the-job monitoring and surveillance regimes. The central problem for women in these situations is again the entrapment effect with no pathways to better employment.

Gender wage disparity is linked to the risk of poverty for women in old age, but consideration of the long-term effect of insufficient, insecure and unsustainable employment in this equation is of equal importance.

Workforce polarisation

Current developments in the labour market, particularly in relation to the growth of insecure employment, which the ACTU estimates at 40% of all jobs, greatly undermine traditional equal opportunity aspirations. A large part of the problem is that that there is growing polarisation in the workforce, noted by many scholars since the 1980s, with a relatively small elite at the top, a shrinking middle, and an expanding group at the bottom in insecure work who Guy Standing calls the “precariat”.

This may mean that there is very great divergence between women in better quality, secure jobs and the mass of women in lower level, insecure, and onerous jobs. It is likely that traditional equal opportunity claims which focus on pay and promotions will best serve women at the top, a little for women in the shrinking middle, but really nothing for the rest who have no bargaining power of their own and for whom occupational mobility is so limited for structural reasons.

The fixation on gender wage parity as a core feminist and equal employment opportunity claim is insufficiently embedded in a broader vision of aspirations for women’s work that seeks to promote access to secure and sustainable jobs, promote upward occupational mobility, as well as reduce unemployment and underemployment. These should, of course, be claims for both women and men and link to the goal of decent work for all, as articulated, for example, by the International Labour Organisation.

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16 Comments sorted by

  1. john mills
    john mills is a Friend of The Conversation.

    artist

    Can you give me a link, or an example, where it shows a woman getting 17% less for the same job, whether part time or full time, as a man?. I notice there weren't any there

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    1. Regan Forrest

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to john mills

      It would be good to get some hard data on this but it is difficult due to the lack of transparency in many salary packages, particularly in the private sector.

      In the public sector, pay grades and salary scales are publicly advertised, making it relatively easy to see where they may be discrepancies and gaps. In the private sector, salaries are negotiated in secret, often without benchmarks advertised in the job description. In this context, there could be wild discrepancies between people doing very similar jobs in the same company. It is generally said that women are poorer at salary negotiations then men, leading to worse packages. But it's possible there are comparable gaps between individual men (or individual women), depending on who's managed to negotiate the better package.

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    2. Gillian Terzis

      Deputy business + economy editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Veronica Sheen

      Sorry about that -- the link is now fixed.

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    3. john mills
      john mills is a Friend of The Conversation.

      artist

      In reply to Veronica Sheen

      Thanks for that Gillian, but those are numbers not "actual jobs",but as an example, I don't know any trades person, who earns less than another,working for the same company, in fact its illegal to pay any trades person less than the basic wage for that trade, ie a painter gets this much, a plumber gets this much, there is no way you can pay less than the legal proper wage for a trades person, so i don't get it, whose doing that to a woman anywhere ?!!. Talks cheap, so are statistics without factual data, like i was saying tell me who! and get them to name and shame their boss for paying them less than a bloke doing the same job, then were talking real.

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    4. Gary Myers

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Regan Forrest

      This suggests that one thing that can be done which will impact the gender pay gap is make unenforceable any employment conditions that restrict the employee's ability to reveal their pay package and conditions.

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    5. Regan Forrest

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Gary Myers

      That would require a massive change in culture - talking about income is taboo in most circles. It would stir up quite a hornets' nest I imagine, and not just with respect to gender. A lot of nasty surprises all round I reckon!

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    6. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Gary Myers

      Unless they've changed this, non-Workchoices awards systems meant that the pay standard was set in the actual award, with a pay or grade scale with award minimum set by the company. I'm not saying that this guarantees equal pay for the same work in the same company, but I am saying that workplace negotiating wages in lower pay (and often female dominated sectors) that use the awards system is not something that happens without unions.
      It may also be the case that the wage gap is partially between…

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  2. Ian Donald Lowe

    Seeker of Truth

    I'm just glad that my Mother was a stay-home mum. We never had a lot of material possessions but as a child my life was happy and stable, due mostly to the incredible amount of effort my Mother put into raising her children. She also had time to get involved (and get us involved) in community activities with a strong focus on improving our small town's facilities. She was known and respected throughout our town and that opened doors for us children as well.

    Unfortunately, my Mother died whilst…

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    1. Regan Forrest

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      "Where are those heroic women of my childhood, who seemed to be the driving force for every community event and function in our town? They were always there, on the commitees, at the school sports days, raising funds for the hospital and the ambulance and anything else that needed to be done. Where are they now?"

      I suspect their loss (assuming they aren't still out there) is one of the unintended consequences of needing 2 incomes to support the standard of living to which we have become accustomed.

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    2. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Regan Forrest

      Regan, I think you missed the point of my comment.
      What good is two incomes if your only legacy is a pile of stuff and some messed up children?
      Why do we only value money these days as a measure of a family/person's worth?
      Is it really an unintended consequence (this "need" for two incomes) or have we all been hoodwinked?

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    3. Regan Forrest

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      Sorry I wasn't very clear originally.

      There are powerful social drivers at play that encourage us to continue to strive to accumulate more "stuff". In fact our very economy is dependent on it. The market based model is predicated on everyone producing and consuming more and more in an ever increasing cycle. As soon as people start producing and / or consuming less, panic ensues as the all hallowed "growth" targets are not reached.

      What I meant by unintended consequences is that while the market model has given us more prosperity, it's created an accelerating merry-go-round that is very hard to get off.

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    4. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Regan Forrest

      It's not so hard to get off the merry-go-round. Just stop playing the game.

      Where is it heading anyway? As you said, "the basic market model is predicated on everyone producing and/or consuming more and more (stuff) in an ever increasing cycle". Doesn't that suggest that the basic market model is basically flawed? Why continue to support such a model?

      It seems that all we care about, all we fight about is money and stuff. It doesn't matter if it's working women, pensioners, middle class families…

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    5. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      Yes it would be better to just stop and rethink the whole deal. That said, I don't think putting women back in the kitchen is something we ought to go back to, although parents and their kids could really use some more relaxed time together, especially in early childhood.

      Prices go up faster than wages most of the time. Prices go up regardless of how much we consume, and simply go up because inflation is built into the system, any consumption will create this, and no consumption means, well…

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    6. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Emma Anderson

      Follow the lead of Costa on ABC's Gardening Australia and plant the nature strip with potatoes; rip out the lawn, plant some fruit trees; get a couple of chooks and make a chook tractor; catch water for the garden in a rainwater tank or barrells if needs must; plant some tomatoes in spring; make sauces, relishes and jams and train the children to think poor. (that last one is probably going to be the hardest)

      In an equal partnership, if one partner keeps working and the other starts working on…

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