Spin a pay gap? No, it's never 'good news'

Spin a pay gap? No, it’s never ‘good news’

pay gap

I suspect Libby Lyons, the Australian Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s director, is getting a little fed up with the Morrison government’s repeated, overzealous attempts to spin the gender pay gap. Judging by her comments in the press release accompanying the release of the latest gender pay gap figures today, she’s not having it.

The headline crows: The national gender pay gap has dropped to 13.4%, a decline of 0.6 percentage points over the last six months.

But before anyone — especially The Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who has form here (but more on that in a minute) — gets too excited, Lyons adds: “I understand that this result is, in part, due to an increase in the number of men in lower-paid full-time employment….it does not, however, reflect any underlying structural changes to women’s overall position in the workforce.”

Basically, men are earning less, women are not earning more. So, the size of the gender pay gap has reduced, but women’s overall position in the labour market has not improved. And the reduction is not in any way a reflection of any sustained action to tackle the drivers of the gender pay gap, which include discrimination, the unequal division of unpaid care work and the undervaluing of women’s work in female dominated professions.

Is that clear? Crystal. Thanks Libby Lyons!

Why would Lyons, or anyone else, suspect that the Morrison government is keen to seize on the new gender pay gap figures and spin them into “good news” for women. Well, because they have a long, if somewhat ham-fisted, history of doing just that. Let’s go to the videotape.

First, in April 2019 the Australian Tax Office (ATO) released its annual Taxation Statistics report for 2016–17 along with a ridiculous press release crowing about the “surprising” jobs where women earn more than men. Everything’s sorted folks!

Women earn more than men in, like, a few jobs.

My question at the time: instead of spruiking some of the few professions where women earn more than men (just 72 of the 1100 occupational categories for which the ATO collects data), why didn’t the ATO release highlight the fact that men earn more than women in 90 per cent of professions? Framing matters.

(I hope no one was crushed by the stampede of women en-route to the surf shop to secure their future economic security, pro-surfing being among the few career prospects where women can expect to earn more than men. Okay, that is “surpising”.)

Then in August of the same year, on Australia’s (Un)Equal Pay Day, the Office for Women put out a tweet heralding the 14% gender pay gap as “great news for Australian women”.

A stubborn, seemingly intractable gap of 14% is “good news”? Libby Lyons, on other occasions, has said that — at the current rate of change — it will take another 50 years to close the gap.

This prompted some to ask, “Is this a parody account?”.

Then a few months later on Father’s Day, the Australian Bureau of Statistics joined the party by putting out a tweet celebrating the fact that the proportion of dads making use of flexible work arrangements to look after their children under the age of twelve had “doubled since 1996”. What does this have to do with the gender pay gap, you ask? The fact that women still shoulder the lion’s share of the unpaid caring work is a major driver of the gap.

But, again, some context please: I wouldn’t call an increase from 15% to 30% over a twenty-year period a success. In particular, given research shows that men are two times more likely to have their requests for flexible work turned down, and, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, only two in 100 employers set targets for men’s engagement in flexible work. 

The Morrison government and its various agencies and departments have been so busy trying to positively spin the gender pay gap that there was a real risk someone would eventually get carried away, which is precisely what happened.

In September 2019, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg declared it “closed” . Yes, that did prove a wee bit embarrassing when the somewhat taciturn – when it comes to the “women’s portfolio” at least – Women’s Minister Marise Payne had to correct him.

After several weeks of downright terrible headlines about the Morrison government’s “woman problem” following the horrific Brittany Higgins rape allegations, and ahead of International Women’s Day, it’s not too long a bow to draw to strongly suspect Morrison and his team are casting around for some “good news” to cheer Australia’s rightly grumpy (okay, furious) women.

Lyons has clearly taken some strong pre-emptive action to ensure the new gender pay gap figures don’t get tossed in the Coalition spin cycle. Well done Libby!

Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox