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Gender is a Rip-Off

Wilhelmina Stracke
Assistant Secretary, Victorian Trades Hall Council

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Every year around this time, calculators across Australia are whipped out and we enter the numbers to work out Australia’s gender pay gap. This year, the calculators announced the gap was 14.2%. 

Now, I’ll start by saying there are some fundamental problems with this calculation. First and foremost, it only compares the average woman working full-time with the average man working full-time. So that 14.2% number isn’t representative of the reality in the workforce or society more broadly. 

Setting that aside, there is something I will take away from the calculation this year: that things have gotten worse. The gap has widened. Again.

A great many women reading this will not need to see this reflected in a number. They will feel it in their bones. And they will also know the pay gap is just the ugly tip of deeper, more sinister problems. Because gender inequality is ‘baked in’ to our society and in to our economy. 

Our wages won’t be equal until we are. 

It’s no more evident than in the ubiquitous devaluation of work in female-dominated industries; the fact that early childhood educators earn wages roughly on par with dog groomers. 

By ‘we’ I mean all of us. All women. Year after year we see the conversation around pay disparity highlighted in stories of famous actresses earning less than their male co-stars or in the number of women CEOs. This version of the conversation implies that women simply need to “lean in” and negotiate themselves higher wages or break the glass ceiling through sheer determination. This version of the equal pay story puts the onus on women as individuals to “bridge” the gap. It ignores the systemic barriers that ordinary working women face.

We need to pull apart the idea of a single, monolithic pay gap. We need to lay bare the mechanisms by which every woman gets saddled with their own individual pay gap that they carry around with them, each of a different size and shape, and made heavier with each passing year. 

The pandemic has played out in a vicious cycle for women workers. Because women are generally paid less than men (and because male-dominated industries tend to lag in terms of family flexibility), thousands of families faced with school and childcare closures made the assessment that mum’s work hours were easier to sacrifice than dad’s. Women have disproportionately lost income, superannuation and career prospects due to the pandemic. I know of a few families that made the decision to raid the woman’s superannuation when the Federal Government allowed it, but left the man’s super intact. 

Decades after we officially legislated Equal Pay, we still view women’s wages as essentially discretionary, and womens’ career ambitions as secondary to men’s. Regardless of our participation in the workforce, women still take on the lioness’s share of the unpaid caring work in our families and communities as well as the unpaid domestic labour. In order to meet these demands on our time women are disproportionately forced into precarious work without benefits like leave or income security. 

And it’s worse for women on the margins. Migrant women, trans women, women of colour and women with disabilities are further disadvantaged by hiring and promotion discrimination and we suspect these intersecting identities lead to higher pay gaps for these women. But since the Workplace Gender Equality Agency doesn’t collect aggregate data on these identities, we do not know for sure. We can only guess that our statistics mirror those in Europe and America. 

The discussion of a single “gender pay gap” figure conflates all these complexities into a simple percentage we can plot on a graph. Would true gender equality be achieved by getting the pay gap to 0%? Maybe. I couldn’t tell you because I would have so many more questions about the future Australia which reached that hallowed zero. 

Questions like: Are women safe in their homes, communities and workplaces? Did we have to get there by working 14.2% harder in the home and the workplace, or did everyone share the burden to lighten the load on women? Is the 0% average shared across intersecting identities, or are some women in our society still experiencing serious structural inequality.

I’m sick of endless reports and inquiries. 

I’m sick of having to use statistics like the pay gap as ammunition, instead of the wake-up calls and rallying points they should be. It’s time to change the conversation. 

Workplace gender equality will only be achieved through collective action, and that means everybody putting their shoulder to the wheel. Traditional ‘top-down’ approaches have failed. Real and meaningful change can only occur in partnership with government, unions and employers, and with the engagement and input from workers at every level - from the factory floor right up to the corporate boardrooms and in the corridors of Parliament.

In the meantime, I encourage all women to keep your invoices and log your hours - Trades Hall has created a pay gap calculator to help approximate what’s owing to you. The day to collect is coming.

There is something I will take away from the gender pay gap calculation this year: that things have gotten worse. The gap has widened. Again. A great many women reading this will not need to see this reflected in a number. They will feel it in their bones. And they will also know the pay gap is just the ugly tip of deeper, more sinister problems. Because gender inequality is ‘baked in’ to our society and in to our economy. 

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