Can a woman's postcode determine how much she earns?

Scene from the TV series Mad Men.

Scene from the TV series Mad Men.

There’s all sorts of reasons to be wary of a proposal from Don Draper.

He might cheat on you; he would certainly drink too much. He might be emotionally distant.

And here’s something else to think about before you accept: where would he want you to live?

A neighbourhood fit for Mad Men’s leading man could have a huge bearing on how much you earn – especially for women.

Advertisement

The economic inequality that begins with a woman’s very first pay packet is also written into the streets, transport options and services of our badly designed suburbs.

These are clusters of houses built for the car and far from jobs. You typically find them on the fringes of expensive cities like Sydney or Melbourne, where the trade-off of cheaper house prices is often a longer commute to work.

It’s a mid-century Man Men vision of suburbia, albeit with more Bundy than brylcreem.

“We’re designing communities still for Don Draper,” says Professor Barbara Pocock, the director of the Centre for Work and Life at the University of South Australia.

“So Don Draper expected to be able to walk out of the house at 8 o’clock five days a week and she will handle it all. She definitely will get in the car to drive down the shops, but she won’t be holding a job together.”

But what if she was trying to?

Pocock surveyed 10 Australian suburbs in 2009 and found men and women both paid a price – more time away from family for him, less economic independence for her – when a personal career and family responsibilities were incompatible.

“Women were particularly affected – particularly the middle income women – by the combination of the commute, job opportunities they had available to them and their need for childcare,” Pocock said.

She dubbed it the “spatial leash”; a tether that forced women, predominantly, to accept lower paid or casual roles when opportunities afforded by geography must trump those offered by their education or experience.

In other words, space can be as constraining for women as being underpaid.

The rub, of course, is that these places are often most the affordable places to live.

It might explain help explain what COAG Reform Council chairman John Brumby last week called the ‘‘baffling contrast’’ between women’s achievement in the classroom and their lower pay and status in the workforce.

‘‘We decided what we were looking at was an socio-ecological system,’’ says Pocock of the interdependent areas of work, home and community that can play out differently for men and women.

The Grattan Institute reached for the leash this year to explain that a ‘‘distinctly spatial’’ element could be behind the the gulf between the workforce participation levels for men and women in Sydney’s outer suburbs.

In parts of the city’s southwest it found this difference to be more than 20 per cent.

“Since women more frequently have primary responsibility for the care of young children and/or aged relatives, they often need to be within a short journey time of home,” its Productive Cities report said.

“Greater numbers of women may therefore be unable or unwilling to take up jobs that require a longer commute.”

Nicole Gurran, an urban planner and policy analyst at the University of Sydney, said planners were now ‘‘really attuned to not making the mistakes of the 1970s, where women in particular suffered social isolation in the suburbs’’.

Newer greenfield developments were planning transport, employment and services alongside houses.

‘‘But unfortunately we’ve still got a legacy of old car-dependent suburbs that are just housing and nothing nearby and nothing walkable,’’ she said.

‘‘Those suburbs are the more affordable still precisely because they’re badly planned.’’

Gurran says this is why affordable housing schemes, which let low and middle-income earners buy into areas they couldn’t otherwise, is important.

Single women, she added, find it particularly hard to get back into home ownership after divorce.

But it’s the same reason that paid parental leave is important. Or access to affordable childcare. Or workplaces that don’t treat a career and a family mutually exclusive propositions – for men as well as women.

It’s also why a workforce where women graduates earn $5000 less than their male peers when starting out, or face $85,000 less super by retirement, should not be acceptable for Australia in 2013.

Unless living in some 1960s throwback is what we really want.