Here we go again. As many women’s groups gear up for the annual unequal payday commiseration, more statistics emerge that suggest the gap may be going backwards, or, at best, is stuck.  Women’s groups are meetings on September 1, as that is the day that it is estimated women will catch up with the average ordinary time annual earnings of men on June 30.  It still takes women an extra two months to catch up despite nearly four decades of court decisions granting equal pay.  It was in December 1972 that the new Whitlam government reopened the National Wage Case to support equal pay for work of equal value and it still eludes us.

The ABS survey of average weekly earnings in May this year showed that, over the year to May, male wages outstripped female wages by 17.5%. On average ordinary full-time earnings, this equates $257.40 per week. The gap moves around a little but this gap size is the biggest since 1982.  We have not really made much progress in the past 30 years.

The differences vary by industry. The overall average annual wage is $67,891 but the highest average wage can be found in the mining sector, at $110,328 per year, a largely male industry and the lowest average is in hospitality, which is much more female. The differences in rises is not just because of different gender balances in the industries as it is  within industries that rises are also different. In mining, for instance, the weekly gap is $458.10 but interestingly the women did better from wage increases than the men, over the same quarter in the previous years.  Similarly, women also achieved a higher rise in hospitality and in retail but lost out in manufacturing, education, the arts and health care/social assistance. The logic of industry doesn’t hold as last are often more feminised than the first.

These differences suggest that there are other factors determining the wage gap, despite some media comments that the growth in gap was the result of the growth in mining jobs,  The data does not support that proposal as the industry differences are not related.  Nor is it the type of employer, as public and private sectors reported women getting lesser rises. The state differences suggest that the various speed economies are not to blame as NSW showed little difference, the ACT saw women doing better and women in WA and Queensland did worse.

The most feasible proposal is that the differences are built-in, often subtle, but very powerful gender-based discrimination. The figures quoted above relate to ordinary full-time earnings, so do not include overtime and bonuses so it is not longer hours at work. There are clear differences in the pay rates for types of jobs people do. Lower pay seems to be attached to the types of jobs that women are more likely to do.

The finance industry is a good illustration, as few of its jobs involve the types of physical strength that some mining jobs may involve. The gap there is nearly $600 per week on average, which is bigger than in mining, and the differences appear in the types of jobs men and women are more likely to do and that attract differential rates for quite similar jobs. Financial skills are seen as high status and skilled, and seen as much more valuable than human resources or just administration. The question we need to ask is what are these judgments are based on? Why do different pay rates emerge among those with maybe similar levels of skill and qualifications? Look at pay rates of directors of human resources versus chief financial officers. The second almost always receives much higher pay than the first and higher status in the organisations. Why?

Many would claim it is market forces i.e. demand versus supply. Others would say making money outstrips the skills of managing people. However, if one fairly assessed the contribution of  both jobs to human well-being and corporate effectiveness, as well as the complexity of the jobs, I suspect the balance would shift.  What we see as skills and competencies and how we value them is deeply gendered and not seriously questioned.

This month Fair Work Australia will consider the equal pay case put by the Australian Services Union on behalf of the community services sector. Its initial judgment stated:

“We record our view, reached on the material before us, that for employees in the SACS industry there is not equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal or comparable value by comparison with state and local government employment.”

This judgment will be limited but depending on it is a wider push for looking at many other areas of employment with gender biases in evaluating work skills. It  would be a small start in shifting the gender gap so pay rates really reflect the value of what we do, not outdated assumptions.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey