Why is there still such a pay gap between men and women in full-time paid work?

This working week is still catch-up time for women on average weekly ordinary-time earnings. Until Tuesday September 1 they will earn less than men did to last June 30. So a coalition of women’s groups is asking for action to close the pay gap. The gender gap was reduced by 19% between 1972-79 (up to 80%), after the male minimum wage was abolished and equal pay for work of equal value approved. It has been up to 86% and now it’s back to 82.5%. So why is this happening, considering women are now better educated, more likely to be in paid work and there are measures in place supposedly to deal with prejudice?

The figures from various industries are interesting and counter the idea that most of the gap is just that women work fewer hours and years. Even when women are in the same industries as men, they earn less, but ABS figures show the gap is biggest in the male-dominated areas, e.g.

Finance 31%, property and business services 26%

mining 25%, government 7%, education 10%

hospitality 12%

In 2008, the pay gap between men and women in finance grew from 24% to 28%, which raises an interesting question about the effects of global financial crisis and who has benefited, after maybe contributing to its causation?

And it’s not the arrival of family responsibilities as new graduates often show clear gender differences, even in the same professional areas, e.g. law and medicine. There is evidence that 40 years after the first decision started the process of equal pay for work of equal value, we are still not there.

The facts are that the cultures of the workplace, community and related attitudes of men and women have not shifted as dramatically as the public rhetoric suggests. We still have a workplace model that survives almost unchanged since the industrial revolution when men first moved out of the home and into the workplace. This became the public sphere and became more important and regulated than what was left outside.

Workplace reform shortened official hours (but they’ve gone up unofficially), emphasised the value of hours worked (the more the better) and assumed the presentism (being there) was an unquestioned good, even when technology offered wider options. The private sphere and its needs were excluded except for some idea of family wages, now defunct. Changes of assumptions about good workers, good bosses, hours and place based locations shifted marginally and women who joined were expected to “fit in” with some minor adjustments.

So it is not surprising we are still under-paid for similar jobs. There are bits that could be fixed by using existing legal and educations processes that can be used to alleviate the differences. Signals of continued discrimination include:

  • Women get paid less for the same jobs, sometimes despite better qualifications and experience, often because they don’t ask for more
  • Women are less likely to apply for higher-paid positions but tend to more qualified when they do
  • Women tend to do many lower-paid jobs because they echo the feminine private roles; e.g. care and support roles and few men will do them
  • These types of jobs are paid less than similar skill jobs usually done by men; e.g. child care versus car care because feminised skills are undervalued
  • Women are more often in publicly funded jobs in NGOs, etc, which pay minimum wage rates and awards. Harder to fix assumptions include deeply held views about what is highly valued in the workplaces and out of them
  • Full-time work hours are overly long and not getting any shorter and people ignore the higher productivity of most part-timers
  • Women still do most of the unpaid care/domestic work, so cut back paid-work hours to take this on
  • Women still have to conform to different criteria of male-defined workplace behaviours for women to be acceptable; i.e. need to be nicer not tough, not aggressive
  • Workplaces cultures still value limited male-defined skills and credentials excluding “soft skills” as natural attributes that do not need to be paid for

Data for May showed full-time ordinary time earnings rose by 6.5% for males and 5.2% for females, showing how women’s pay is going backwards. So women’s groups are asking women to wear red to work next Tuesday to illustrate their deficit and give their boss a red rose to remind him we too have thorns, if this gap does not decrease.

Peter Fray

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