The gender pay gap isn't just 'real' - it's even worse than statistics suggest


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We're told the gender pay gap in Australia is 17.3 per cent.

It isn't. The real pay gap is much, much higher. Numbers can be deceptive and the way the gender pay gap is calculated is quite misleading.

For example, if Mary is earning $940 per week and John is earning $1,430, John is earning $490 per week more than Mary. If you were calculating the gender pay gap between John and Mary using conventional methods, you'd first check that John and Mary are both working full time, then you'd say that $490 is 34% of John's salary, so the gender pay gap is 34%.

If Mary is working part-time, you'd establish her full-time equivalent salary (what her part-time salary would be if she were working more than 35 hours a week), work out the difference between their two salaries, calculate it at a percentage of John's salary, and come up with an answer somewhere around 17%.


This is how the Workplace Gender Equality (WGEA) and other government agencies calculate the gender pay gap figure for Australia.

As Jackie Woods of WGEA told Daily Life: "It is a matter of convention in Australia and globally that gender pay gaps are calculated a percentage of male earnings. The agency calculates gender pay gaps according to this convention so that our data is consistent with other research in the field."

Convention. It's how we've always done it. But that doesn't mean it's the most reliable method, and it certainly doesn't give a truthful depiction of the gendered wealth disparity in Australia.

Other than the fact it makes the gender pay gap appear smaller, there is no reason to use male earnings as the base salary.

In fact, while we still have to talk about a significant difference in how much men and women earn, surely it's more relevant to use the lower salary as the standard by which to measure the gap.

Another - equally valid and far more accurate - way to look at the pay gap would be to say that turning Mary's salary into a full-time equivalent is misleading.

Doing so is increasing Mary's salary beyond what she is actually earning into an assumed salary she "could" be earning, which completely ignores the reality of women's working lives, given that women are over 70 per cent of the part time work force and under 40 per cent of the full time workforce. It also implies that the hours unpaid are hours women are not working. 

The latest ABS Gender Indicator data shows that, of the people working part-time, 62 per cent are women with young children, and only 8 per cent are men with young children. These discrepancies are too large to ignore, and they absolutely should not be smoothed out of the gender pay gap calculations.

If you calculate the difference in their earnings as a percentage of Mary's actual salary, the gender pay gap is 52%.

This is the real gender pay gap in Australia: 52%.

The salaries quoted for John and Mary came from the ABS Employee Earnings and Hours data. They are the average weekly cash earning for men and women (both full time and part time workers) in 2014, which was $1430 for men and $940 for women.

WGEA does great work in compiling and presenting gender inequality data, but they are tied by the parameters of the definitions and conventions they have to work within. They do, however, do their best to address the hidden gender inequities in the workplace:

Gender differences in full-time employment can be attributed to a number of factors, including variations in family circumstances and labour market histories. Both full-time male and female workers are on average around 40 years old and are in a couple relationship. However, 16.8 per cent of full-time male workers have young children aged 0 to 4 years, compared to just 7.9 per cent of full-time female workers.

These gender differences reflect the fact that child care responsibilities are usually disproportionately borne by women, with men having more opportunities to take on full-time work when children are young. Full-time male workers appear to have more stable labour market histories than full-time female workers, having spent longer periods with their current employer and in their current occupation than women working full-time.

And in all of these calculations, women who are not in the workforce at all are completely discounted.

The latest HILDA report shows women not in the workforce (not working or looking for work) has hovered around 40 per cent for the last 10 years; men not in the workforce was around 25 per cent. The main reason women are not looking for work is that they are caring for children or other family concerns (over 40 per cent, men citing similar reasons was around 6 per cent). The main reason men are not looking for work is that they are pursuing some form of education.

The gender pay gap is not about just about money, it's about power, and a lifetime of economic disadvantage. While we don't collect pay data for people of colour in Australia, the significant disparity for black and Hispanic women in the USA is almost certainly replicated here for Aboriginal women and other minorities.

The causes and effects of this economic inequality are central to all the social, legal, professional and personal disadvantages suffered by women. It all comes down to conscious and subconscious perception of gender roles.

Words like "ambitious", "opinionated", "forceful", "determined" have particularly gendered connotations in the workplace that disadvantage women.

Women's work is perceived by men to be of less value than work by men, women are less likely to be hired or promoted, less likely to be awarded bonuses for good (or even mediocre) work than men, and work traditionally perceived as "women's work", the caring/nurturing professions like teaching and nursing, are given lower economic value than traditional male roles in labouring, mining or engineering.

The sum of all these issues is the average superannuation payout for women is now about a third of the payout for men, putting elderly women at a much higher risk of homelessness and poverty in old age.

The most common solutions proposed to address the gender pay gap are quotas, which are frequently rejected as "unduly burdensome and not necessary", and the idea that promoting flexible work for women will fix the problem.

It's difficult to understand how pushing more women into "flexible" (read: part-time) work will fix women's endemic economic disadvantage. It just provides a structure to further ingrain stereotypes that exclude men from caring roles and women from professional roles, and entrenches the endemic economic disadvantage suffered by women when they are presumed to be primarily responsible for raising children.

We need to focus a much stronger effort on breaking down those stereotypes and encouraging men to share equally in the work of raising children and caring for family. As long as women are assumed to be the ones who will take time away from work to undertake caring roles, they will always be perceived as less committed to their careers, and therefore less desirable employees. This affects all women, even the ones who don't wish to, or are unable to have children.

A few other snippets from the ABS Employee and Earnings data:

  • 60% of casual workers are women. The average weekly wage for women working casually is $446, for men it is $720. Gender pay gap of 61%.
  • The overall average weekly wage was $1,182. 65% of the people earning more than $1,200 were men.   
  • 19% of the workers earning more than $2,500 per week are women.
  • 67% of the workers earning less than $500 per week are women.
  • The most female dominated occupation is clerical and admin workers, where 76% of the employees are women. 84% of those women earn less than the average weekly wage for this occupation.