Tired of fighting or just plain tired – how gender pay battle has stalled

While we’re happy to gush about the efforts of workers like nurses and teachers during the pandemic, the women doing these jobs remain stuck at the frontline fighting another plague, writes Katrina Beikoff

Nov 27, 2020, updated Nov 27, 2020
The state government has moved to support women with endometriosis. (File image - Australian Nursing and Midwifery Journal)

The state government has moved to support women with endometriosis. (File image - Australian Nursing and Midwifery Journal)

As the greatest fears of the pandemic raged, it was health care, aged care, community care, and allied health workers that we turned to to get us through.

When our lives turned upside down, it was the essential work of teachers, supermarket workers, and cleaners we desperately needed.

In a country gripped by the reality of coronavirus, “women’s work” was suddenly thrust into the limelight. Female-dominated services and sectors were rated essential and these workers our most valuable.

But there’s already a contagion afflicting workplaces. Gender equality fatigue has hit workplaces hard, and is every bit as endemic as the hardiest virus.

Data released this week by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) shows a significant decline in employer action on gender equality.

Whilst the gender pay gap for total remuneration dropped by a fraction, men still out-earn women on average by $25,534. There’s a gap of 20.1 per cent between the pay men and women take home, and the rate that gap is closing shows women will be paid less than men for decades on the current trajectory.

WGEA Director Libby Lyons said the data was comprehensive snapshot of private sector employment across Australia based on reports from almost 5000 employers covering 4.3 million employees from 1 April 2019 to 31 March 2020, right up to the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I was concerned that Australian employers had become complacent. The modest rate of change in last year’s results suggested they were in the grip of ‘gender equality fatigue’,” Lyons said.

“I’m now very disappointed that almost nothing has changed this year. It appears to me that Australian employers are on autopilot when it comes to improving gender equality.”

As frightened Queenslanders were sent into lockdown and uncertainty about the impacts of the pandemic took hold earlier this year, Queensland Nurses and Midwives’ Union secretary Beth Mohle succinctly predicted that COVID would deliver “a pivotal moment” for women’s work.

“It is women’s work right now that is front and centre in our fight against COVID and within the industries that are keeping things going,” Mohle told InQueensland at the time.

“It is time to reflect and value the work that women do. What are the jobs that are really important to us when times get really tough? What are the industries that we need to have in our country going forward so that we can continue to protect ourselves?

“This gives us the opportunity to reflect upon that and then reflect upon how we actually demonstrate the value of our work, and that brings us back to the gender pay gap,” she said.

For the more than 90 per cent of QNMU members who are women, and women in frontline services and workplaces across the country, the recognition of their necessary work might be nice.

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But the rate of real change is glacial.

Lyons said women continue to dominate the more insecure part-time and casual roles that have and may continue to be among the dominant financial casualties of the pandemic.

Women make up 75.1 per cent of part-time workers and 56.3 per cent of casual employees.

“Our data shows that women’s working experiences and conditions are very different to that of men. Women have more precarious employment circumstances,” Lyons said.

“As we move into the post-COVID recovery phase, we must make sure that women’s workforce participation is not sidelined. Our economic recovery depends on women having equal access to secure full-time jobs.”

But the most troubling finding was a substantial 6.1 per cent decline in the number of employers taking action on pay equity, she said.

That means that while employers know there’s a problem, even fewer than last year did anything about it.

“Just 54.4 per cent of employers who did a gender pay gap analysis took action to close the identified gaps,” Lyons said.

“This trend must not continue. Experience tells us that when employers measure their data, identify the problem areas and take action to address them, the pay gap closes.”

Whether COVID will be the catalyst for jolting us out of gender equality fatigue and delivering that moment for women’s work remains to be seen.

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