Women starting behind and failing to catch up: report

The progress women made in the workforce decades ago appears to have stalled. State Library of South Australia/Flickr

Australian girls and women start out on an equal footing with males in school and higher education, but fall behind in workforce participation and leadership roles, according to a new report prepared for the Council of Australian Governments.

The first report to COAG on the status of women and girls, led by COAG Reform Council chair John Brumby, found while women are living longer and healthier lives, they have lower starting salaries and pay, lower labour force participation, fewer opportunities for workplace leadership, and less superannuation to retire on.

The report was compiled at the request of the COAG Select Council on Women’s Issues to assist in the development of a “National Framework for Gender Equality”.

The findings come after the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap report ranked Australia first in female educational attainment out of 136 participating countries, but 52nd for labour force participation.

“Any discussion about the future economic wellbeing of our nation will revolve around productivity – women make up half our population and are therefore half of the productivity story,” Mr Brumby said.

Women are outperforming men on a number of educational measures, particularly on reading and writing scores at school level. But there is a disconnect between this high performance during school and post-school engagement. Fewer young women than men are in full-time work or study after they leave school – 73.5% for women compared with 79.3% for men – and this gap has barely improved over the last ten years.

COAG Reform Council

The report also found that women from a lower-socioeconomic background were much less likely than their high income counterparts to be in full-time work or study.

UTS Professorial Fellow Eva Cox said in a sense the gaps between women have become a lot wider.

“Women who drop out of school early or fall out of the system seem to end up further behind. We’ve increased the inequalities between women.”

Education equity

Women under 30 are now more likely than men to have higher education qualifications, but the equity gap remains for working age women overall. In 2012 56.4% of women aged 20-64 had higher level qualifications compared to 59.9% of men. The last ten years has seen this gap improve by 13 percentage points.

Researcher at the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education Tim Pitman said while it was encouraging to see women accessing higher education at a higher rate than ever before, the gap between men and women once they entered the workforce was worrying.

“On average, women have lower starting salaries than men, and men’s starting salaries continue to increase at a faster rate than women’s,” he said. “In a country such as Australia, there is no logical nor moral justification for this.”

Starting behind, but higher education helps

Women who enter the workforce are financially disadvantaged from the start, the report found, with women’s median graduate starting salaries $5000 lower than men, and women’s average weekly earnings 17.5% lower.

COAG Reform Council

Jennifer Whelan, a research fellow at the Melbourne Business School, said it was not surprising starting salaries for women were lower in several male-dominated sectors.

But she said it was interesting to see that women gained greater advantage from tertiary education than men.

“Women get a greater salary boost from going to university,” she said. “Graduate women earn 100% more than the median salary for all women, whereas graduate men earn around 80% more than the median salary for all men.”

Dr Whelan said this was because women without tertiary qualifications were more likely to working in trades, semi- or unskilled employment that were subject to a greater pay gap relative to men in those jobs.

Previous research shows that in many cases, women had lower salary expectations and tend not to bargain heavily. And Dr Whelan said the greater the power gap between who was hiring and the candidate made it less likely there would be any negotiation. “Gender colours the perception of this power gap, particularly if the person they are negotiating with is a man,” she said.

She said anecdotal evidence suggested women would take the job first and bargain about pay after, at which stage there was less bargaining power, while men did it the other way around.

Women are also less likely to be in higher-level or leadership roles, the report noted. Less than 3% of ASX 500 companies are chaired by women, and women hold 39.2% of senior executive roles in the Australian Public Service despite making up 57.3% of the APS workforce.

Child care costly

The report found access to child care significantly impacts on women’s employment, with a quarter of families with children under 12 not accessing child care in 2011 due to the cost.

Ms Cox said the COAG report offered little analysis of the “why” behind the statistics, but that COAG needed to look at the biases in the system, and use its coordination powers to assess child care and other services that could increase workforce participation.

“What’s coming through very clearly in terms of workforce participation is rates are not going up significantly. We don’t really understand it apart from suspecting full time working hours have become so horrifically long that most women can’t bear it.”

Superannuation sting

Lower pay and workforce participation means women are retiring with an average of 36% less superannuation than men, the report found.

Ms Cox said while the report deals with the fact that there’s a difference in earnings it didn’t mention the difference in the tax rates, which put women earning less at an even greater disadvantage.

“If you’re in the bottom tax bracket you get no benefit from super, in fact you get negative benefit.”

The Reform Council has recommended COAG continue to report annually on the progress of gender reform outcomes and that it set core performance indicators to be assessed against.

Ms Cox said given the report presented some old data and indicated a lack of data in some areas, a schedule of updating major social indicators should be negotiated between COAG and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.