On justifying gender pay gaps because women dominate care sectors

Can we stop justifying gender pay gaps because women dominate care sectors?

The fact female-dominated sectors are underpaid doesn't make an overall gender pay gap OK.
Gender pay gap across sectors

It’s now been a few days since new data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency was published, highlighting the average $25,800 less in total remuneration women took home than men in 2020-21 for full time work.

The data covers four million employees, around 40 per cent of Australia’s total labour force, across organsiations with more than 100 employees.

So the data’s pretty comprehensive in the story it tells.

Still, anyone reporting on this new data has by now already received some helpful advice as to why the gender pay gap doesn’t actually exist or (and this is worse) justification for why the gender pay gap does exist and is therefore not worth discussing.

The explanations have been rolling into our inboxes here at Women’s Agenda – where the emails straddle both extremes in terms of tone. On one side such emails can be blatantly abusive, on the other they can be aggressively polite.

These gender pay gap explainers or justifications may take the softer approach, such as that gender pay gaps are impossible because it’s illegal to pay women less. They’ll take the attempted logical approach: this research does not offer “role for role comparisons” (that’s not what this gap has measured not what WGEA claims to have presented). And then they’ll veer into their own reasons for gender pay gaps being OK: because lower-paid care sectors like early childhood education and nursing, are dominated by women.  

As if there’s nothing to see in the data, because these female-dominated industries are underpaid anyway. And, worse, they should be underpaid as they predominantly involve caring for or educating others.

Let’s leave aside for the moment, the fact WGEA has found that every one of the 19 industries in Australia has a gender pay gap in favour of men – including healthcare and social assistance. Sure, the gap’s narrower than others, like in construction.

But anyone who attempts to justify gender pay gaps off the idea that women are choosing to go into lower-paid professions has clearly not been paying attention the past couple of years.

These are the sectors that supported every other part of the economy these past couple of years. The educators who kept childcare centres open. The nurses who’ve run vaccination clinics, ICU units and have held the hands of dying COVID patients. The aged care workers who’ve supported older Australians through lockdowns.

If you’ve not personally been assisted by those who work in these sectors during the pandemic, you at least have a loved one who has.

These sectors also now happen to be those with employees who’re feeling burnt out, are looking for other options, and in some cases taking to the streets to demand better pay.

Despite those that continue to offer their explanations or justifications for the gender pay gap, a good number of employers are moving forward to do something about the gaps that exist in their businesses. WGEA reports that 42 per cent of employers have reduced their pay gaps since 2020.

Still, that leaves 37 per cent of employers where the gap has actually widened, and 21 per cent where it’s remained static.

Other positive news came in data we published earlier this week, finding that three in five employers are now offering paid parental leave.  

Meanwhile, female managers are on the rise: making up 41 per cent of all managers, up from 36 per cent in 2013. One in five CEOs across reporting entities are female, and one in three board members.

So there has been some, tiny, progress on the data covering two-fifths of the working population in Australia. Unfortunately, the gap could very well be worse across the rest of the population, given it would involve employees working across smaller businesses with less scrutiny over their equal opportunity and employment practices.

Other key stats from the data:

  • 51% of employers are now offering paid domestic violence leave, up from 12 per cent in 2015-16
  • Men twice as likely as women to be in the top earnings quartile, earning $129,000 and above
  • Women are are 50 per cent more likely than men to be in the bottom quartile, earning $60,000 and less
  • There’s a 14.4 per cent gender pay gap in health care and social assistance, despite the sector being dominated by women.
  • 22 per cent of board are still male-only
  • 74 per cent of boards are more than 60 per cent male  

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