The News limited story this week was very clear:

The growing pay gap between the s-xes is now higher than it was at the height of the women’s liberation movement and three out of four Australians say they want it fixed.

After improving between 1972 and 1977, the gender pay gap has worsened in the 21st century. Women were earning on average 88 per cent of the male average wage in 1977 but that had fallen back to just 82 per cent in May 2010, research by KPMG shows.

The average pay gap between men and women workers grew by $7.90 per week in the last 12 months from $231.40 a week to $239.30 a week. This means women will have to work three days longer in 2010 compared to 2009 to reach an equal pay packet.

“We need to be focusing our efforts on achieving pay equity for women who are doing work of equal value to men, not necessarily the exact same job,” Diversity Council Australia acting director of research Lisa Annese said.

And that shows the nub of the problem. Pay equity is going backwards for a range of reasons but a big one is that there is increasing numbers of the feminised jobs in education, care, health and personal services and increased particularly high paid often masculinised jobs in mining.

Pay differentials have various causes, but we need to talk about hourly rates or average weekly ordinary time earnings to compare like with like. Of course, if people work fewer hours they earn less and women often “choose” to reduce hours and take time out because they are the primary carers. These are issues but not in the debates on pay equity.

The problem is that despite nearly 40 years of equal pay legality, there is still evidence that the valuing of jobs is inequitable because there are still gender prejudices operating,  in defining merit and the value of jobs. Legal equality of earnings in the same jobs is useful but given the high levels of gender segregation Australia has in jobs and industries, the gender gap is not decreasing but increasing.

Part of it is prejudice. Why is human resources valued at lower levels than financial resources? How many often female human resource directors are paid more than the CFO, despite statements about the high value of our workforce? Why do child-care workers get paid less than shelf stackers or car parking attendants? Why did librarians have to fight to be seen as skilled as geologists?

The problem is that skills and merit in the workplace are still seen as highly gendered and valued accordingly. Women are caught therefore in the dilemma of moving into male-oriented jobs that may pay more, or follow their interests into the other often vital areas of work where pay is much lower. Recently the New Economic Foundation in the UK came up with the idea of revaluing pay rates for jobs on the basis of their contribution to social wellbeing. On that basis, pay for nurses would rise rapidly and pay for tax planners would fall. A nice idea but not one that we are likely to see the powerful accept!

So we are left with the problem that many really essential jobs are grossly underpaid and undervalued. At a recent child-care meeting, many centre directors complained they could not keep staff because of the low pay. This is bad for the children as continuity counts, yet fees would need to rise and parents can’t afford it. And that is part of the problem.

Many women’s jobs are in areas dependent on subsidies e.g. health and education, so raising pay rates would mean fewer services, higher fees and those needing the services being unable to afford them. There is a current equal pay case being argued under the new provisions in the Fair Work Act, which would raise the award rates in the community services sector. The Gillard government was supporting the case and did make a commitment to look at extra funding if it was successful; the Coalition has not mentioned it.

The other problem is the plain discrimination that continues in workplaces. There were some interesting comments online to the article above. After the usual range of male denials, there were many examples given of women finding out they were being paid less than men who had similar jobs and experience or sometimes even less. As many women are still less likely to be aggressive in claiming their rights, they tend to be exploited by bosses who know they won’t ask too many questions. This we need to address, but the structural differences need government intervention.

To quote some of the comments under the story: “To Stephen of South of the City, yes I can. Right here where I work. Up until a few years ago, we always had a male storeperson, we now have a female who has proven to be harder working and always gets the job done plus more, unlike the previous male ones who always used to say they didn’t have time. As soon as this female one was employed, she was put on a lower salary than her previous male counterparts.”

And to idontthinkso of Brisbane, “Yes we have national awards, but what the article says is equal pay for work of the same value, not necessarily the same job. Rest assured, if the situation was reversed i.e. women did the muscle work and the men did the administration work, administration wages would be whole lot different. All I can say is, I hope these people push the issue, it has been going on for far too long.”

On the other hand, we have the response : “Why doesn’t the PC mafia just directly rob men of our dignity and status at gunpoint? It would be much quicker and more straight-to-the-point than the fear, lies and obfuscation (see article) currently being deployed to emasculate us and erode natural gender roles.”

The battle continues!