Time is running out to close the gender wage gap

The health and finance sectors have the largest gender wage gaps, of more than 30%. Jerry Bunkers

Equal pay was, and still is, one of the key demands of feminists. Basic to any idea of gender equity should be that paid work is fairly rewarded, whether it’s undertaken by a male or female.

In early Australian industrial relations, this wasn’t so: the 1908 legislation set the basic wage to cover a man’s financial responsibilities for a family – and women’s work was only worth two-thirds of men’s. This legal discrimination was removed by 1974, but 38 years later, we’ve barely moved past four-fifths, and sometimes the gap increases.

The latest facts sheet from the Commonwealth government’s Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) states:

In the quarter ended February 2012, the gender pay gap stood at 17.4 %*. The average weekly ordinary time earnings of females working full time were $1,186.90 per week, or $250.50 per week less than men, who earned an average weekly wage of $1,437.40 per week. The figures show that the gap has reduced 0.2 percentage points (pp) from the previous quarter and has not changed from a year ago (17.4 % in February 2011).

The gender pay gap rises and falls. In 1996, it was just under 16%; in 2004 it had dropped to 14.9%; and now it’s above 17% again. These figures are based on average ordinary time earnings, so they don’t reflect part-time workers or overtime. Similar comparisons of hourly rates show similar gender gaps.

Interestingly, the finance and health care sectors have the gender wage biggest gaps, of more than 30%. And the latter is one of the key job growth areas. Education and training has one of the smaller gaps (10%).

Women are now better educated than men; more of us are in the workforce and, in many cases, work full time. Yet even graduate salaries, pre-child rearing, show gender differences that mostly favour men.

So why is the gap so intransigent, despite policy commitments to equal pay?

The answers are complex and cumulative, but most are ascribable to some form of gender prejudice. Some of this is external and even institutionalised, some internalised. The basic reasons for the gaps can be summed up as:

  • Skill-related prejudices undervaluing activities seen as soft and more likely to be owned by women. This includes bed making, child care and human relationships.

  • Job and industry-based awards and rates of pay formally undervalue personal care and services. Think of nursing verses medicine; typing versus building.

  • Australia has a very gender differentiated workforce: men tend not to take on lower-level jobs in traditionally female areas and women tend to stay out of jobs involving “male” competencies. Compare finance versus health care; men as chief financial officers, women as human resources directors.

  • Gender prejudices abound. Men are expected to proclaim their ambition and desire for control; women are often punished for being pushy and ambitious, but ignored if they’re not.

  • Women expect, and are expected, to take time out for family but men aren’t. Both may be penalised for failures to breach or fulfil stereotypes.

  • Women are less likely to ask for higher pay or apply for promotions, so they tend to be better qualified but lower paid than their male peers.

Closing the gender gap

There are obvious difficulties in remedying such gender-based prejudices. But one option is an industry wide approach, which the Australian Services Union used to win its recent equal pay case. Rather than trying to compare a category of skills – librarian versus geologist, for instance – the ASU’s claim was based the comparative undervaluing of a range of jobs in a sector because that industry grouping was seen as feminised. Even men in the areas were badly paid.

This formal recognition of institutionalised discrimination opens up other comparisons, but not in a hurry: this case takes a slow nine years to reach parity.

Women are less likely than men to ask for pay rises or promotions. Flickr/htlcto

A comparison of gender gaps between the states and territories suggests the most likely “improvement” to equal pay could come from reducing male wages.

The ACT and Tasmania have differences as low as 12%. The ACT gap is presumably smaller because public service salaries tend to be more gender equitable; the Tasmanians are probably suffering from the loss of higher paid (male) jobs as tourism grows and forestry declines.

The wage disparity in Western Australia is high (at nearly 26%), reflecting high mining boom pay rates. The possible end of the mining boom and growth in low paid service industries would reduce the gaps considerably, but this would come with reduced some household incomes.

But there are strong arguments for active changes based on both efficiency and equity. Underpaid feminised occupations, such as aged and child cares, which are similar to the services covered in the ASU case, should be revalued because the current low pay is neither fair nor effective. As well as increasing turnover, it creates resentment and lowers productivity and quality of care.

As these jobs are expanding, and are often publicly subsidised, we need to set the Productivity Commission up to re-value skills and reduce or eliminate gender based prejudices.

Taking on discrimination

The big issue remains how to reduce gender-based workplace prejudices. Legal shifts, we have seen, can only do some of the heavy lifting. Sex discrimination is illegal but it survives in workplace cultures. Women, and the men they work with, will have to push changes to gendered assumptions about modes of working and skills.

We need to recognise and name the different perceptions of skills and behaviours that limit women’s options. They are often punished for being pushy but are ignored if they are not, as Mara Olekalns discussed recently on The Conversation.

Internalising these views may be logical to avoid being punished for atypical behaviours, but it results in women missing out on higher pay and jobs. From a productivity view, it also means the community misses out on the most effective use of their skills.