Let’s stop the annual “best practice” gender pay gap farce

Let’s stop the annual “best practice” gender pay gap farce

The vibe this International Women’s Day was pretty interesting. It was decidedly angry and impatient. I suspect that reflects the layer upon layer of issues that have been piling onto women’s shoulders, particularly these last two years of the pandemic and in the year since the historic Women’s March. 

There was a real sense of growing impatience with business as usual on the gender equality front, whether that be the standard pink cupcake breakfast with an inspirational speaker guiding women to “power pose” their way to the top, or a gender equality campaign that some feel missed the mark in terms of reflecting a broad range of women’s interests and needs.  

With that in mind, I would like to draw attention to the annual farce we all seem to partake in when the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) releases its yearly “Gender Equality Score Card” and “Employer of Choice” citations. The former was released in February and the latter just last week. Both are usually released alongside a suite of “best practice” case studies that are duly covered by various media outlets, including The Sydney Morning Herald The Age and right here at Women’s Agenda.

My question is this: when are we going to name the elephant in the room? This annual “best practice” bonanza is emblematic of the Morrison government’s softly, softly — and ultimately ineffective – approach to closing the gender pay gap. 

Because the message is clear: here are some employers doing the “right” thing, why don’t you (coughs, voluntarily) follow their example? There’s always an accompanying quote alongside the “best practice” case studies from the WGEA director of the day, currently Mary Wooldridge, chiming in cheerfully about how — choose your own gender equality adventure — conducing a gender pay audit, offering paid parental leave that doesn’t differentiate between “primary” carers (usually women) and “secondary” carers (usually men) is a “win/win” for everyone. 

The hope is that more employers can be nudged to do the right thing. The reality is that many don’t — and won’t. 

For example, Wendy Tuohy’s article in The Age earlier this week was entitled, “There’s no excuse: Top employers boost women’s pay to equal men’s”. But the fact is, many employers seem to still find lots of excuses, and this is somewhat buried in the story among all the “best practice”.

Even the “employers of choice”, the article revealed, have an 18 percent gender pay gap, and while overall only 50 percent of companies have done a pay audit, only half of those have taken any action to address what they’ve found. That’s called the “action gap” by WGEA, and can I just add that going through the trouble of conducing a gender pay audit only to ignore that information is also rather farcical. 

What’s needed is the full implementation of the recommendations from the Workplace Gender Equality Act (2012) Review, which was also launched just prior to International Women’s Day, but to much less fanfare. Among the recommendations: mandatory, public reporting of individual employers’ gender pay gaps. At the moment, WGEA only publishes that information as an industry composite. Women have no way of knowing what the size of the gender pay gap is at their workplace.  As they say, sunshine is the best disinfectant. 

For those who loved the UK’s Gender Pay Gap Bot, which called bullshit on UK employers’ soft focus IWD social media promotions by retweeting them alongside the size of the gender pay gap at that particular organisation — some called the bot the hero of 2022 IWD — this is how we could get from here to there in Australia. Many lamented publicly on social media, “awesome, can we have that here”. No, we can’t, because that information is not (yet) publicly available. 

But the Minister for Women Marise Payne has only said that the Morrison government is “working towards” implementing all the recommendations from the review, including  mandatory public gender pay gap reporting subject to “further consultation with business”. 

What does that even mean? I remember that the Morrison government said something similar about Kate Jenkins’ [email protected] sexual harassment inquiry, and it still hasn’t implemented the central overarching recommendation for a positive duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment from happening in the first place. Another consultation on the implementation of that duty closed last week ….. more than two years after Jenkins’ submitted her final report. 

When I asked the Equality Rights Alliance, one of the six government funded national women’s alliance’s which “welcomed” the announcement that the government was “working towards” implementing the review’s recommendations whether mandator public gender pay reporting was really going to happen, they couldn’t quite tell me.  

That’s something I would like a straight answer to. Not more glowing coverage of the minority of “best practice” employers who are doing the right thing. I want to know more about those who aren’t doing f-all — and how we can do more than “nudge” them to up their game. 

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