Why women earn less than men

A recent study found that simply ‘being a woman’ was the most serious impediment to women in the workplace, who are still being paid 17 per cent less than men. Neda Vanovac examines the day-to-day workings of the glass ceiling.

On the surface, it would seem that Australian women have been successful in breaking through the glass ceiling – Julia Gillard is our deputy Prime Minister, Quentin Bryce is our Governor-General, Kristina Keneally and Anna Bligh are state Premiers. And yet, a recent study by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) shows that women are still being paid 17 per cent less than men on average, a difference that equals up to $224 a week.

What is happening? How is it possible that in 2010 the gap has, if anything, increased? NATSEM’s report found that simply being a woman is the major contributing factor to the gap in Australia, accounting for 60 per cent of the difference between women’s and men’s earnings.

“If the effects of being a woman were removed, the average wage of an Australian woman would increase by $1.87 per hour, equating to an additional $65 per week or $3,394 annually, based on a 35 hour week,” the report reads.

The glass ceiling would appear to be more intact than ever for the vast majority of Australian women – and this news is not new. However, what is new is the day-to-day detail of how the wage gap works. For the most part, the difference in earnings is created through workplace segregation, labour force history, and under-representations of women in vocational work and in large firms.

Anne Kennelly, Women’s Officer for the Public Service Association, says: “It wasn’t until the late sixties that women received equal pay for equal work. There were a lot of jobs that were considered women’s jobs or men’s jobs, and it was legal for women to be paid less than men doing the same work. [Many] jobs are still considered to be women’s jobs and the skills aren’t as highly valued… that tends to be the caring professions.

“If you’re going to blame anything, it’s the structure of how our workforce has risen over the years. There are structural inequities that need to be fixed.”

Tamara Plakalo, social trends analyst and former CEO of online think tank Open Forum, says: “Does it surprise you that most women work in ‘soft’, supporting roles, and are paid less than those who go out to hunt and are soldiers of the perpetual profit-chasing war?”

“Why? Because their view of the world is not supportive of perpetual wars, and the world (and the corporation) is a reflection of a system built around male evolutionary impulses.”

She says these impulses have structured the entire way our workplace functions, and occupational and industrial segregation are key factors of the pay gap between men and women. NATSEM’s report shows that men tend to work in environments that are 61 per cent male, while women’s work environments are 44 per cent male. The grouping of the genders in certain professions and industries is having the effect of dividing skills and labour along gender lines, further entrenching the pay gap.

It has been repeatedly demonstrated that occupations associated with women or with stereotypically “female” skills and qualities (most often the caring, teaching, and communications fields) are seen to be less important and deserving of lower pay and respect than traditionally “masculine” roles. As more women enter a profession, there is a tendency to value and remunerate them less for their work.

Women’s choices are often held up as examples for why they are not earning as much as men. Female biology and fertility has been used to keep women in almost a separate working class from men. The reasons for this are hundredfold, according to the report: the undervaluation of women’s skills; women typically work fewer paid hours per week and fewer weeks per year than men; their employment is likely to be discontinuous, which is linked to shorter job tenure and therefore lower pay. The deterioration of human capital while women are out of the workforce can result in lower wages or promotions.

Men often put in longer hours, are mentored at crucial stages of their careers, and generally hold positions for longer than women, leading to their dominance of senior positions.

Pamela Jack is a partner with Minter Ellison Lawyers and has a 25-year pedigree as one of Australia’s foremost construction lawyers. She has four children and represents the miniscule ten per cent of women that occupy senior positions in Australia’s leading law firms, notorious for being bastions of male dominance.

“Where the issue of parity becomes glaringly unequal in the law is when you look at partnerships, where you make the real money,” Jack says. “If you’re looking at the rewards that people get out of a career, then its quite stark when you’ve got up to 70 per cent of law students being women, at least 50 per cent of graduates that go into law firms are women. Even at senior associate level we have a number who are women.”

So where are women lost in the gap between senior associates and partners?

“Discrimination’s gone underground,” says Jack. “People are politically correct and say the politically correct thing. But women in Australia have not been promoted and there is now almost a cultural divide that leaves a lot of younger women saying, ‘its too hard, I’m not even going to bother.’”

It is undeniable that women must still contend with having a family and the restrictions that that places on their careers in ways that men still don’t have to consider. NATSEM’s report showed that the lifetime earnings of men with families were double that of women with families, while single men and women’s income was almost identical.

“In the law, what I think happens is, it’s pretty hard work, and a lot of young women look at women like me and say, ‘I don’t want to work like that. I want to have more of a life’,” Jack notes.

Of the legal “brotherhood”, she says, “They promote partners who are like them. They all, almost to a one, have wives who stay home. They don’t have any experience of working women so they think it can’t be done. They just dismiss [young women in the firm who might want to have a family] as partner material, because they think it can’t be done.”

Despite having a long and successful career as a partner in a major firm, Jack doesn’t think that she has proven to her male colleagues that she represents women who can juggle both family and work.

“Oh no, they see me as an exception,” she says.

Janet has been working in the male-dominated beef export industry since finishing university. She agreed to speak with Reportage Online under the condition of anonymity to protect her job.

“I began work with a peer at the same level. He had no educational advantages, no degree either. We had identical responsibilities, exactly the same job description and should have been on the same pay. I signed a contract with a starting salary of $45,000 as an entry-level logistics coordinator. My male co-worker started on $55,000.” Janet only found out the difference in pay because an accounts manager accidentally emailed her the pay slips of the entire company.

“Obviously I pretended I saw nothing, but it did open my eyes to the sexist nature of my workplace.”

After four months, her co-worker was fired for incompetence, and although Janet had increased her department’s key performance indicators by 40 per cent, and was doing both her own job and her fired colleague’s, she was denied a pay rise. After 13 months she received a $5,000 pay rise that still put her beneath her male colleague’s starting salary.

“All the purchasing teams, and I mean every single team in the nation, are male. They do the wheeling and dealing. They decide the price, terms, volume [of meat sold]. They control the market. There is one female in New Zealand in this position.

“As for logistics, this seems a more female-based department. It requires female traits of organisation, time management, prioritising, eye for detail, categorising… All the people we deal with in logistics departments are female with at least five male logistics managers,” Janet says.

“The beef industry is dominated by men. Always has been, and I think it always will be. At all the meetings, functions or conventions it is all about getting boozed and rowdy. It’s just what’s expected. I am a vegan non-drinker who is good at my job; I know that I don’t fit the mould but as long as I work my arse off I can make enough to get by. I know that it will not be as much as the men. I think the only way I could ever earn as much as a male in the same position is to open my own business.”

The F feminism collective recently held a conference on the nature and progress of feminism. The notion of economics in the workplace were addressed by panellists including Human Rights and Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick and writer and feminist activist Eva Cox.

Commissioner Broderick pointed out that “power sits with men”.

“Men make the rules in the workplace and have for many years. While women are excluded from the economic power of this country they will be alienated everywhere else around Australia.”

If it becomes a question of economics, it is difficult to argue with the findings of the NATSEM report, which clearly states that pay inequity costs $93 billion per year to the Australian economy or 8.5% of GDP.

“If the wage gap were closed entirely (that is, if women earned the same as men) we estimate that GDP would grow by around $93 billion. Much of this effect on economic growth is brought about through the channel of hours of work, with a narrowing of the gender wage gap leading to significantly more hours of work, and thus to greater economic growth.”

Decreasing the gender wage gap would see a rise in the opportunity cost of having children, reducing fertility and increasing women’s hours of work, in turn increasing GDP per capita, the report finds.

However, a woman’s ability to work more hours is determined by, among other factors, the availability of affordable childcare. Increased hours of work, as Pamela Jack noted, can cause women to struggle to balance family and work, along with renegotiating household and care arrangements with their partners.

The Rudd government has recently begun addressing women’s economic security, and is in the process of implementing measures such as changes to the Fair Work Act to extend the equal remuneration provisions to include the right to equal pay for work of equal or comparative value; 12 months unpaid parental leave for new parents; a new right to request flexible working arrangements on return to work; improvements to child care including increasing the Child Care Tax Rebate to 50 per cent; and a process for a pay equity test case under the new equal remuneration provisions of the Fair Work Act for the social and community services sector. This case was lodged by the Australian Services Union on 11 March this year.

The steps are small, but they are being taken. As Eva Cox colourfully put it:

“We know we’ll have [gender] equality when we have as many female f***wits in power as men.”

Read for more detail at Australian Centre for Independent Journalism 0n 14 April 2010


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andreas Moser
    Feb 19, 2011 @ 10:18:14

    Here is the REAL reason why women earn less than men: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/02/19/gender-pay-gap/ They have different expectations in life, and the female preference for rich men forces men to earn more.


    • Sasiphattra Siriwato
      Mar 21, 2011 @ 10:19:24

      I think the argument that we make here is that women and men who have the same background of education and work in the same type of job still earn different. I do not deny that women and men have different expectation. Men often give priority to their career while women give it to their family. But is it fair for women who do all the same job as men have to earn less than men? Nowadays, most government start to use job value to indicate salary that I think should be better to reduce gender pay gap.


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About the author

Sasiphattra Siriwato

Sasiphattra Siriwato (JuL)


- ปัจจุบันเป็นอาจารย์พิเศษประจำภาควิชาความสัมพันธ์ระหว่างประเทศที่ International Pacific College, New Zealand
- กำลังศึกษาปริญญาเอก คณะสตรีศึกษาที่ Massey University, New Zealand
- ประกาศนียบัตรปริญญาโทรัฐศาสตร์ในด้านการทำงานวิจัย Monash University, Australia
- ปริญญาโทรัฐศาสตร์และนโยบายสาธารณะ Macquarie University, Australia
- ปริญญาตรีรัฐศาสตร์และศิลปศาสตร์ เอกภาษาฝรั่งเศส Canterbury University, New Zealand


- Part time lecturer for Department of International Relations at International Pacific College, New Zealand
- PhD candidate on Women’s Studies at Massey University, New Zealand
- Graduated with a Postgraduate Diploma of Arts (Research) in Politics from Monash University, Australia
- Master Degree in Politics and Public Policy from Macquarie University, Australia
- Bachelor Degree in French and Political Science from Canterbury University, New Zealand

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