Gender pay gap still a disgrace

Anne SummersGender pay gap still a disgracePosted by Anne Summers on 01 January 2013

In the early 1980s when I headed the Office of the Status of Women during the Hawke government I used to travel the country giving speeches about how women were faring. One of the positive trends I liked to identify was the significant increase in women’s earnings in relation to men’s.

Sure, women still earned only 80.1¢ for every dollar men got but, I argued, given the trend in recent years we were speeding towards parity. No question about it. Just 14 years earlier, in 1970, women earned only 59.1¢ but that had risen to 70.4¢ by 1973 and to 77.4¢ in 1975. In 1979 the figure was 80.6¢. OK, in 1984 it was down a bit but, I used to confidently assert, this is just a temporary blip. There was no way the gender pay gap was not going to be banished from the Australian economy.

Back then I was certainly not pessimistic enough to envisage a scenario in which, almost 30 years later, in 2013, I would be trying to explain why women today earn only 83.5¢. Nor could I have foreseen that this gap is not merely persistent but that it is actually widening. Nine years ago, in August 2004, women almost hit the 85¢ mark, equalling a previous high. But it didn’t last and the gender pay gap now seems to be permanently stuck around 17.5 per cent. (This is according to ABS average weekly ordinary full-time earnings; on some other measures the gap is considerably wider.)

And these are just the averages. If you probe a bit, into occupation or location, you will find disparities in pay that are positively Dickensian. Women in Western Australia, for instance, earn 25 per cent less than their male colleagues, considerably less again in the mining regions. Women in the finance sector suffer the worst pay discrimination, with a gender pay gap of 32.7 per cent in May 2012 – a bigger gap than a year earlier.

These statistics, released in August 2012 by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA, formerly known as EOWA, the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency), make for grim reading. There is barely an occupation, a job, a sector or an age group where women do not earn less, often hugely less, than men. Young women (aged 15-19) and women working part-time in clerical, services, sales or labouring jobs earned more than men. But it is difficult to find a statistical example of women and men being paid the same.

So much for equality.

And despite these few examples of a few categories of women earning more than men, the overall earnings outlook for Australian women is outrageously unequal.

In 2009 a report by the AMP and the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, based at the University of Canberra, made the shocking finding that Australian men with a bachelors degree or higher and with children could expect to earn $3.3 million over their working life: ”Nearly double the amount for women in the same category at $1.8 million,” the report states.

A 25-year-old woman starting her working life was likely to earn $1.5 million over the next 40 years, but a man the same age would haul in $2.4 million. That’s almost a million-dollar difference, a finding that led me at the time to assert that there was a million-dollar penalty to being a woman in Australia today.

Now, we find that women’s earnings prospects have deteriorated further.

Last October AMP/NATSEM released a new report that showed a 25-year-old woman with post-graduate qualifications would, over her lifetime, earn $2.49 million. The 25-year-old man who had sat beside her in class would, by contrast, accumulate $3.78 million.

This is bad enough but what enraged me about these findings is the fact that the 25-year-old woman with a post-graduate degree, earning her $2.49 million for her years of study, would take home less than a man with just a Year 12 credential who will earn $2.55 million.

What kind of incentive is that for women to study and gain qualifications?

Those who don’t want to face up to the brutal facts of sex discrimination against women in Australia in 2013 usually argue that these discrepancies can be accounted for in women’s interrupted workforce patterns (due to taking time out to have children) and their greater propensity to work part-time.

That proposition has been knocked on the head by this week’s release of figures showing a large increase in the past year of the gender pay gap in graduate starting salaries.

This has been a huge wake-up call.

WGEA has done us a great service in compiling and publishing these figures. In the past, we only knew of these discrepancies when individual professions publicised them. For instance, a few years ago the Law Council of Australia revealed that in NSW male law graduates were paid $70,300 in 2007 while women received only $63,500.

Now we know that law is one of the better professions when it comes to pay equity. As reported this week by WGEA, female law graduates suffer only a 7.8 per cent gender penalty. Women architects face a 17.3 per cent discrepancy while dentists’ pay lags behind men’s by 15.7 per cent.

You would never know that under Australian law women and men are meant to receive equal pay.

As Justice Mary Gaudron, the first woman to be appointed to the High Court, famously said in 1979: ”Equal pay was ‘won’ in 1969 and again in 1972 and yet again in 1974.” And, she added, ”We still don’t have it”.

In 2009 Julia Gillard, then minister for employment and workplace relations, included provisions for gender pay equity in her Fair Work legislation. But this law does not mandate equal pay, it merely provides that Fair Work Australia can make an order for equal remuneration after an application by an individual, a union or by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

There has been one spectacularly successful application to date, that by the Australian Services Union on behalf of low-paid workers, mostly women, in the community and services sector. The resulting order from FWA means these workers will receive pay rises of up to 40 per cent, phased in over several years, starting last December.

Such cases are valuable and there needs to be more of them but they can’t cover women in the professions or other non-award covered occupations. Something needs to be done that addresses this inequity in a systemic fashion.

As the figures make clear, the gender pay gap is a national scandal. It amounts to a gender tax, with women making a disproportionate contribution to the national economy. (And that’s on top of having the kids and doing most of the housework!)

It is often pointed out that if Australian women’s workforce participation was at the same level as men’s (79.7 per in cent instead of 65.3 per cent) it would add around 13 per cent to GDP. Much government policy, including the cruel pushing single mothers off the parenting payment on to Newstart, is designed to increase women’s workforce participation rate.

But women are entitled to question why they should bother working harder, or at all, when the lifetime penalty for doing so is well over $1 million.

The Prime Minister might want to add this one to her list of examples of sexism and misogyny at work in Australia today.

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