‘Earning less than men is a woman’s choice.’ ‘Prioritising child rearing over paid work is a choice made by many women.’ ‘Women choose not to pursue leadership roles because they don’t want the extra responsibility.’
When I moved into the NGO sector across from the corporate world, I wanted to help women gain access to choices and opportunities in both their personal life and in their careers. However now, the word ‘choice’ just seems to be used to entrench stereotypes and prejudices, rather than to open possibilities for women.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics recently released the 2014 wage gap data, announcing that the gender pay gap in Australia has reached the highest level in 20 years, at 18.2%. The vast majority of media coverage and public commentary today, focused on women ‘choosing’ to work in lower paid sectors, accounting for the gap.
Harvard labor economist Claudia Goldin talks about the ‘explained’ and the ‘residual’ pay gap. We are all relatively comfortable discussing the ‘explained’ pay gap; that women are over-represented in lower paying industries like teaching, nursing and retail, while men continue to dominate the highest paying roles in mining, construction and finance. Women taking time out of their paid careers to care for children and other dependents also affects earnings.
The residual pay gap is the grey area where discrimination and gender stereotypes impacts women’s salaries and the way they are valued by employers. This plays out in different ways in different organisations. Women with caring responsibilities may not be given more important work, due to a perception that they can’t manage the ‘stress’. Hiring panels may determine that certain people have more ‘merit’ for the role based on an assumption about the difference in men and women’s work availabilities.
Australian business seems to be content to let the unequal treatment of women persist throughout their working life. Lower graduate salaries, pregnancy discrimination, inflexible work arrangements all lead to women retiring with on average 45% less superannuation than their male colleagues. It is no wonder that older Australian women are 2 ½ times more likely to live in poverty than men.
We can continue to enact laws and develop policies, but until we accept that sexism and gendered norms are rife in Australian workplaces and challenge them, the pay gap will continue to rise.
To address the residual pay gap, we need to go back to basics and teach that there is no such thing as ‘jobs for men’ and ‘jobs for women’. We need to shine a national spotlight on the women who have broken through into the male dominated sectors and share their stories, celebrate their success. We need to hold employers accountable for doing annual reviews of pay equity, reporting the results to shareholders and tie leadership team performance to ensuring that the pay gap is addressed. We need to stop dismissing the gender pay gap as a result of women’s choices.
Twenty years ago, the Beijing World Conference on Women gave us a roadmap to achieving an equal world where women participated as equals in their family, workplaces and communities. Two decades later, inequality persists and ‘choice’ is used as our excuse for inaction.
We owe it to the next generation to disrupt the trends which are perpetuated in Australian workplaces and to ensure that the gender pay gap does not continue to widen.