The data says it all: There's a significant 'motherhood penalty' in Australia & getting worse

The data says it all: There’s a significant ‘motherhood penalty’ in Australia & it’s getting worse

Kristine Ziwica is a ‘gender equality data geek’. So what better person to take the lead researcher role on our latest report on shifting the dial for women at work? Below, she shares some of the surprises to emerge from the data — particularly, how deeply entrenched the ‘motherhood penalty’ really is in Australia. 

A few months ago, Women’s Agenda’s Editorial Director Angela Priestley asked me to help research and write a new report, Press for (Immediate) Progress: A Snapshot of Women at Work and How Employers Can Help Shift the Dial by 2020.

Her instructions were pretty clear. She wanted me to pore over the most recent data (only the most recent data) and offer up a snapshot of where we are in 2018. She also wanted me to glean any momentum, or lack thereof, and analyse trends to get a sense of where we were moving in the right direction, and where there remained significant road blocks.

I think Angela asked me to take on this task because of my reputation as a “gender equality data geek”. This is precisely the kind of thing I would actually do for fun. Well, maybe not. But I nearly had you fooled.

But despite the fact that I regularly write about gender equality and draw upon various research reports to underscore a point, I had, to be honest, never pored over Australia’s significant body of gender equality research in quite this way. (And you call yourself a “gender equality data geek”, I hear you say.) I was keen to take up the challenge.

So what did I learn from my deep dive into the data?

Firstly, I learned poring over gender equality statistics makes you an awkward, if not slightly depressing, party guest.

The school community picnic happened to coincide with the time period I properly got stuck into the statistics. In fact, an earth mover was required to extricate me from my data mountain. But I did not emerge unscathed. I had acquired a slightly strange new social skill, or a fun new party trick. You decide.

First I approached my friend Fiona, a barrister. “Did you know you have the highest occupational gender pay gap of the 350 specific occupations recognised by the Australian Tax Office?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “But thanks for depressing me.” Note to self, not a great ice breaker.

Then I saw my friend Neela, who Women’s Agenda readers will remember as the one married to the “unicorn husband”. “Did you know you are one of only 751 female surgeons in Australia?” I asked. “There are more kids at this school than women in surgery!”

“I know,” said Neela. (Of course she did. This is Neela after all, who can also write brilliant satire on her phone, like this one for Women’s Agenda, while waiting in the dentist office with her three children. Nothing escapes her eagle eye.)

But aside from my ability to horrify or dazzle (depending on who you ask) my working mum mates at school, once I stepped back from the individual facts and figures and looked at the trends, one thing in particular leapt out at me:

The so called “motherhood penalty” is more deeply entrenched than I thought in Australia, and it’s getting worse. 

And that made me really, really mad.

According to the Diversity Council, which regularly produces a report looking at the drivers of the gender pay gap, the influence of years not working, i.e. career interruptions, usually related to the birth of children, has more than doubled since the Diversity Council first researched the drivers of the gender pay gap ten years ago.

What’s more, Australia has some of the highest part-time work rates for women in the world, according to the OECD. Only Switzerland and the Netherlands outrank us. And to round things out, 1 in 2 women report experiencing discrimination while pregnant, on maternity leave or when they return to work, and they are spending up to twice as much time on unpaid domestic housework as men.

I’m not telling anyone anything they don’t already know when I point out that over the course of a lifetime, this adds up to the ultimate “motherhood penalty”, with women retiring with on average half the superannuation as men. Older single women are the fastest growing group of people falling into homelessness.

For too many women, the birth of a child is a career cliff edge, where pregnancy discrimination, the lack of truly flexible work options for both men and women and more equitable parental leave policies (both of which would help redistribute the caring load) forces them onto a “mummy track” of poor pay and poor prospects, if they manage to work at all.

Our public policies and workplace practices entrench gendered ideas about who does the caring, and make it practically difficult for women and men with children to find senior roles with the flexibility they want or need. If it is offered, too often, it’s something “for the mums”.

Young women coming up through the ranks are keenly aware of this, and deeply concerned about the impact having a child will have on their career. New research from PwC shows almost half of professional women who responded to its survey were nervous about the impact starting a family might have on their career, and nearly half of mothers who returned to work felt they were overlooked for promotions upon their return to work.

Professor Rae Cooper of the University of Sydney Business School, who recently co-authored the Women and the Future of Work Report, told Women’s Agenda that employers (and I would add policy makers) are in for a bit of a shock, as young women are increasingly impatient for change, including action to address the motherhood penalty.

Many revealed to Professor Cooper and her colleagues that they were delaying having children or considering not having children at all, because of their concerns about its impact on their career prospects.

Is this feeding into the national debate about gender equality?

Not as much as it should, in my opinion.

The same week Women’s Agenda launched the Press for (Immediate) Progress report, the nation was treated to Kelly O’Dwyer’s inaugural speech at the National Press Club as the new Minister for Women. She hinted some big announcements to promote gender equality are expected in the upcoming budget in May.

The next day, her shadow, Tanya Plibersek, responded and launched Labour’s new Gender Equality Strategy, mapping out the action Labour plans to take “from day one” if it wins the next election.

Clearly, with a new and what I can only describe as a somewhat more activist Minister for Women (sorry, not sorry Michaelia Cash), we may well have a true competition of ideas in relation to gender equality ahead of the next election.

If anyone is inclined to take the advice of this “gender equality data geek” (and please do, I didn’t immerse myself in the data just to impress my friends), I would strongly suggest they make the motherhood penalty – including going back to the drawing board on issues like pregnancy discrimination, paid parental leave, flexible work rights and policies and childcare – fairly central to that debate.

That — brace yourself for a terrible pun — would really be the mother of all gender equality debates.

Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica You can download the full Press for (Immediate) Progress report here. Thank you to Baker McKenzie for supporting this research. 


Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women’s Agenda in your inbox