We’re still fighting the battle I thought women would win 30 years ago

Anne SummersWe’re still fighting the battle I thought women would win 30 years agoPosted by Anne Summers on 03 March 2017

equal pay

By Anne Summers

It really is scarcely believable that pay inequality between women and men is still an issue in 2017.

Not only do women on average earn at least 20 per cent less than men, but in some sectors the gap is actually growing. This is despite innumerable court victories and other measures, including anti-discrimination laws, designed to ensure gender equality.

The sums involved are scandalous.

A 25-year-old woman with post-graduate qualifications starting out on her career will earn more than $1 million less over her lifetime than the man she sat next to in class according to a 2012 NATSEM report. A million dollars! That’s enough to buy an apartment. Even in Sydney.

More recent figures compiled by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) in concert with the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, and based on the 4 million employees covered by the large companies that report annually to WGEA, show the grim reality of women’s remuneration in Australia.

Their report Gender Equity Insights 2017: Inside Australia’s Gender Pay Gap, released on Thursday, finds there is a full-time gender pay gap of 23.1 per cent but when you look at the total earnings of women and men employed full-time, the gap rises to 26.5 per cent. That’s because of what WEGA calls the “male ‘bonus’ premium”. That’s when you include overtime, superannuation, bonus payments and other non-basic salary components.

We might have assumed that the higher up in management a woman moved, the more likely she is to get equal pay but unless she’s in politics or a similar job where pay is strictly regulated and there is not much scope for bonus premiums, this is not the case.

Women in senior management get an average of $93,000 less per year than their male counterparts, reports WGEA.

Ironically, the only jobs where women are not systematically worse done by is in part-time employment where women make up 75 per cent of employees. Women earn 7.8 per cent more than men in these jobs – but only as long as they stay in the bottom ranks.

“Pay gaps in favour of part-time women tend to be concentrated in low-paid occupations and industries, with the part-time pay gap reverting to favour men as roles become more senior and highly paid,” WGEA reported in its 2016 survey. “Overall, part-time roles are dominated by women and significantly lower paid (on a full-time equivalent basis) than full-time roles.”

Even in some full-time occupations, the pay is significantly less for women. This is especially so in women-dominated occupations.  Take childcare workers. These are the people, almost all of them women, who are charged with educating our pre-school children yet their pay, at about $20 an hour, is half the ABS average for the entire workforce.

It is difficult to comprehend how an economic injustice of this magnitude can be tolerated in a country such as Australia that supposedly values the “fair go”.

There is no legal, social or economic justification for it.

But nor is there is any concerted effort to do anything about.

There have been several important court victories, including one for community sector workers in 2012 that saw some employees, the vast majority of whom are women, get pay rises of up to 41 per cent.

But this sector-by-sector approach is not only agonisingly slow, it does not cover vast tracts of the workforce.

If all earnings are taken into account – part-time and casual as well as full-time – the gender pay gap is currently 17.7 per cent. This is actually a very welcome decrease on the previous period when it was 19 per cent.

It would be good to think that this meant the trend was towards parity but history teaches us it would be unwise to assume this.

Back in the early 1980s when I headed the Office of the Status of Women I used to assert with utter confidence that women’s pay was on a fast track towards parity.

Although at the time women were only earning 80 cents for every dollar men pocketed, just over a decade earlier, in 1970, women had got only 59.1 cents. That had risen to 70.4 cents in 1973 and 77.4 cents in 1975.

In just five years we had gone from just under 60 per cent of men’s earnings to almost 78 per cent.

The gap is closing fast, I used to say. We’re almost there.

I could never have imagined that in 2017 – more than thirty years later – we would even still be talking about equal pay.

Let alone wondering if it will ever happen.

So much as we will appreciate the plaudits and the celebrations at the lunches, dinners and other events marking International Women’s Day next week, I am sure that most women would rather have the money.

This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 4 March 2017