How to respond to 9 myths about our gender pay gap problem

- March 9, 2024 6 MIN READ
Breaking Bad, money pile
Image: Breaking Bad.
We constantly hear: “I’m passionate about closing the Gender Pay Gap, and I’m trying to bring it up with friends, family, and colleagues, but I don’t know how to respond to people’s questions or arguments about it.”

If you’ve ever felt like you didn’t have the tools for conversations about the Gender Pay Gap, well this is for you.

1. “The Gender Pay Gap doesn’t actually exist”

WGEA, a government statutory agency, conducts an annual Employer Census that all Australian employers with 100 or more employees must participate in.

From this census, the Gender Pay Gap is calculated. There is also a Gender Pay Gap calculated by ABS.

Regardless of what measure of pay you use, there is consistently a Gender Pay Gap in favour of men in Australia.

You saying that the pay gap does not exist does not make it true.

2. “Women and men are paid the same for the same job”

That’s technically correct!

This Gender Pay Gap is not to be confused with women and men being paid the same for the same, or comparable, jobs. That is equal pay and has been a legal requirement since 1969.

However, it’s interesting to note that equidi, a Gender Pay Gap tool for organisations, has reported that even where a like-for-like Gender Pay Gap was identified, this was only rectified in 57% of cases.

This Gender Pay Gap is a useful proxy for measuring and tracking gender equality across a nation, industry or within an organisation.

Closing the Gender Pay Gap is important for Australia’s economic future and reflects our aspiration to be an equal and fair society for all. In a truly fair society, the Gap should be as close to 0% as possible.

3. “Women choose to go into lower paying jobs”

Except that logic doesn’t really work when there is a Gender Pay Gap in every industry in Australia.

However, let’s dig into that theory. It is well documented that feminised industries are historically undervalued, and in fact, as more women enter an industry, the industry becomes undervalued and paid less.

Analysis by Impact Economics and Policy found that employees with a bachelor’s degree or higher working in female-dominated industries earn 30% less per hour than equivalently qualified employees in male-dominated industries.

Similarly, employees with a Certificate III/IV working in female-dominated industries earn 36% less per hour.

In the USA, the median earnings of information technology managers (mostly men) are 27% higher than human resources managers (mostly women), and janitors (usually men) earn 22% more than maids and house cleaners (usually women), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

This has been seen throughout time in professions such as computer programming to biology.

Wages drastically fell (by 34%) when women in large numbers became designers, housekeepers (by 21%), biologists (by 18%), in the field of recreation (57%), and ticket agents (43%).

The reverse was also seen when male programmers began to outnumber women.

In a recent report from The Centre for Future Work, they identified 80 occupations in which men make up 80% or more of the workforce; these occupations have an average salary above $100,000. In contrast, no occupation where women make up that share of the workforce has such a high average salary.

So no – women don’t ‘choose’ low paying jobs; society just undervalues their work.

4. “Women choose to work part-time”

Unfortunately, women still shoulder a disproportionate amount of unpaid work at all ages. This could include caring for children or elderly relatives, or taking on household tasks. When taking on these additional tasks, casual or part-time work may become the only option.

In Australia, women take on the mental load of planning and coordinating activities for children in 78% of families, despite only being the primary carer in 52% of families, women do more unpaid housework than men even when they are the primary breadwinner, and women of all ages spend over 9 hours a week more than men on unpaid work and care.

So next time you think that women just ‘want’ to work part-time, consider what else they’re taking care of so that men can work full-time.

But to fully close this point off though – the WGEA Gender Pay Gap calculation converts part-time, part-year, and casual salaries to full-time equivalent (FTE) earnings.

So women working part-time more frequently shouldn’t technically impact this Gender Pay Gap – except that part-time workers are typically overlooked for promotion and paid less but that’s a whole other argument!

5. “Women choose to stay home to care for children or other family members”

While there are plenty of women that do choose to stay home to care for children, there are a number of factors that may go into that decision, as no choice is made in a vacuum:

  • Discrimination: 1 in 2 women report experiencing discrimination while pregnant, on maternity leave or when they return to work.
  • Unpaid work: Women already spend nine hours more a week than men on unpaid work.
  • Childcare costs: An Australian couple with children in full time care will spend 60% of average earnings in gross childcare fees, second only to Switzerland.
  • Societal expectations: With 26% of Australians agreeing that “mothers who don’t need the money really shouldn’t work” and 17% thinking that “a pre-school child is likely to suffer if his/her mother works full-time,” many women feel societal pressure to stay home to raise children.
  • Flexible work: The uptake of flexible work can restrict mothers’ earnings in industries or occupations that disproportionately penalise short or flexible working hours. Meaning if women do return to the workforce part-time, they are penalised with reduced wages, or overlooked for promotion

All this can lead to a significant motherhood penalty where women’s earnings drop 55% on average in the first five years, and 43% for years 5-10 after becoming a mother.

This penalty costs the average working woman $876,000. Men do not experience the same penalty – in fact, many experience a phenomenon known as the ‘Fatherhood Bonus’ where wages increase with the birth of a child.

6. “The jobs that men do are riskier, so they deserve to be paid more”

While it’s true that the majority of fatalities in the workplace in Australia are men, women and men are injured at almost the same rate, injured women have a higher median time out of work, and despite this, injured women receive lower median compensation.

Many jobs also have longer term impacts on women that are not always recorded or measured. For instance, within nail salons, where the number of workers are women, a toxic blend of chemicals has led to a high incidence of health issues such as asthma and miscarriages, and likely longer term cancers.

While there is a lot of research into work-related syndromes in male dominated workforces such as mining, there is very little research done for women dominated workforce, even as breast cancer rates rise significantly, and a growing number of chemicals have been shown to impact women’s hormones and fertility.

While this lack of research may not seem very important, women are typically smaller than men and have thinner skin, which can lower the level of toxins they can be safely exposed to. Women also typically have higher percentage body fat, in which some chemicals accumulate.

When women are hired into tougher or more rigorous roles, they aren’t set up to succeed. They have uniforms that don’t fit properly because they are designed for men – from women police officers in Victoria who received medical issues from trousers that were cut to fit men to female football players being between 2-10 times more likely to suffer ACL injury than male counterparts, and numerous more examples from overseas.

They have machines or processes that aren’t designed for women’s bodies, or cause injuries at higher rates, with one clear example being in the Australian Army, where when they reduced the required stride length from 30 inches to 28 inches, pelvic stress fractures amongst women reduced.

And none of this covers the increased risk of sexual harassment in the workforce.

In data released by the ABS in 2023, 1.3 million women had experienced sexual harassment in the last 12 months. Of those 1.3 million women, 27% of them were harassed by someone they had a work or professional relationship with.

So yes, while many more men than women die each year in workplace accidents, can you really say that women aren’t taking on risks in the workplace?

7. “Women aren’t as educated or experienced as men”

Women make up more than 60% of Australian University enrolments and Australia has the 4th highest level of tertiary educated women in the OECD.

63.3% of women have a qualification outside school and 35.2% hold a bachelor degree or above.

You’d think that women and men upon leaving higher education would be compensated the same, however, a Gender Pay Gap emerges immediately after graduation, with full-time starting salaries for women averaging $2,000 less.

So no – women aren’t less educated or less experienced.

8. “Women negotiate less than men”

Actually, recent research shows that women negotiate as often as men (36% vs 37%), or according to some sources, even more than men (54% vs 44%).

However, in the first study, men were more likely than women to receive the raise, at 82% than 74%, and in the second, men still earned higher than women.

The problem isn’t the rate at which women are negotiating, it’s how they are perceived. Studies have found that women that negotiate salaries are often met with backlash caused by unconscious bias, so not only do they not receive a raise, or receive a lower raise than men may have, they also have the fact that they negotiated held against them in future remuneration or workforce decisions.

9. “If women are truly paid less, then every company would just hire women”

The Gender Pay Gap exists in part because women’s contributions are undervalued by society. We have seen this when when more women enter a certain workforce the average wages fall as that profession is less valued or seen as less prestigious.

This comment ignores the role of unconscious bias in evaluating the merit of women’s work. Even after accounting for all other possible factors (such as career breaks, choice of occupation, experience level, productivity differences etc.), pure discrimination in labour markets may account for 38% of the Gender Pay Gap. So women won’t be paid more because they are ‘cheap’ because we all don’t value women’s work.

  • Maddi Ingham is chief of staff at Verve Superannuation and Verve Money. Verve launched in 2018 as first Australian superannuation fund to be founded by women, led by women, and tailored for women.
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