You’ve probably heard of the gender pay gap at some point in your life, and it’s pretty likely that a large portion of those voices have been made up of people telling you that it simply doesn’t exist. The pay gap is real. It’s the difference in the average of women and men’s earnings, and despite having made significant strides towards achieving equality, it’s an issue that persists across the globe. Far from being fixated on the exact earnings of females and males, the debates around pay equity are illustrative of larger issues in society where women—particularly women of colour and women with an “LGBT indicator”—are less likely to be hired, promoted, or represented in higher ranks. It is not merely about dollars and cents, it’s about a lifetime of economic disadvantage.
Globally women are now being paid the average that men were paid almost a decade ago, according to last year’s World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap report. In the same report, it was stated that it will take 118 years before men and women will earn an equal pay if the current rate of convergence persists. Here in Australia, the image is just as bleak. Even though there are 99.2 males per 100 females in Australia, higher paying jobs and industries are dominated by males. Nationally the full-time average weekly earnings of women are $1,325.10, whereas for men, weekly earnings are around $1,602.80, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. With a full-time gender pay gap of 17.3%, the difference between women and men’s earnings over a year is, on average, around $14,440.40.
These statistics and data refer primarily to the inequalities between white females and males. For women of culturally diverse backgrounds, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, these issues are further compounded. In Australia, we don’t collect pay data for people of colour but the disparity for women of colour in the USA is likely to be reflective of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and minorities living in Australia. The figures reported on unequal pay are therefore obscured by the fact that most women of colour fare worse than women who are white or Asian. When a woman of colour’s pay is compared to a straight white males, the pay gap is significantly larger.
Critics largely attribute the gap to women’s life choices, arguing that women work fewer hours and leave the workforce to look after children. However, often there are a number of interrelated factors which play a part in the gender pay gap, such as: industrial segregation; occupational segregation; the undervaluation of women’s skills; and, as previously mentioned, time away from work taken by women to have children. So the argument that the pay gap is about women’s life choices is, at least in part, technically true, but conveniently ignores the fact that someone needs to have children. Reproduction is fundamentally important to our existence and to the welfare of our country. See Japan, for instance, where last year a census showed that their population fell by one million in five years. Longer life spans and falling birth rates raise concerns over how we can provide for older generations.
Pay gaps are reflective of personal and professional choices made by both men and women, such as the type of job pursued after graduating. For example, in female-dominated industries such as teaching and child care, there are usually lower pay rates than in male-dominated industries such as mining—but should they be? Why is the labour of a teacher worth less than those in the mining industry?
To say that the gender pay gap boils down to choice is not only vastly misleading, but also an oversimplification of what pushes people to make certain choices. Things like gender conditioning influence the type of industry men and women work in—that is, subject and career choices of students are gender segregated early in childhood and females are less likely to pursue male-dominated careers. The same can be applied to men following typically female-dominated paths.
The persistent gap between men and women is about far more than just choice. In a study conducted by The Australian Institute, it was found that on average women have 9 per cent less superannuation than men do, regardless of whether they have dependants and even if they work full-time throughout their lives. Many argue that a woman’s choice to have children is the real reason behind the gap; however, many women don’t choose to stay home or cut back their hours after children. The struggle to afford child care and the “motherhood penalty” forces them out of work and takes away opportunities to earn as much as their male counterparts. Mothers are less likely to be hired or be perceived as competent at work. Men, on the other hand, experience improved prospects after children—and tend to be paid more following their child’s birth.
Generations of women have earned less than their male counterparts as a result of a number of interrelated factors. It’s hard to be certain whether we’ll see an equal Australia in our lifetime, but one thing is for sure: Australia and the world have a way to go when it comes to pay equity.
By Alyssia Tennant