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Settling for less? How to close the gender pay gap

Although women make up half the Australian workforce, research from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows that the average full-time female employee takes home $26,853 less per year than her male counterpart. In fact, for every $1 a man makes in Australia, a woman makes 77c.

Social expectations for boys and girls

The way that children are treated socially can shape their behaviour and beliefs, including their future career expectations. ‘Research shows that we treat boys and girls differently from a young age, but then assume the resulting behaviours are natural or innate,’ explains Dr Michelle Smith, an Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Fellow whose research focuses on how females are represented in popular culture. ‘For example, noisy or boisterous girls will generally be told to quieten down, whereas boys’ similar behaviour will be excused.’

‘This translates through to adulthood. Women are discouraged from being assertive and are less likely to put themselves forward for opportunities and promotions – while men aren’t judged harshly for being confident and having leadership aspirations.’

Gendering occupations and industries

Discrimination seeps through particularly in traditionally female or male occupations. ‘There are far more women in “caring” professions, such as nursing, or those associated with children, such as teaching. It’s no coincidence that feminised professions tend to be valued and paid less than those that are male dominated,’ says Dr Smith.

Conversely, women are missing from fields like construction and building, where they make up 10% of the industry. ‘There is still lingering resistance in some fields to the idea that women can be as capable as men in the same role,’ explains Dr Smith.

Choosing children or a career

Dr Nadine Zacharias, Honorary Research Fellow at Deakin, whose research compares work-life balance in Australia and Sweden explains, ‘The Swedish approach is that children benefit us all – they’re the future workforce, the future tax payers and the responsibility of women, men, employers and the state.’

In Sweden this thinking has led to heavily subsidised child care and lower working hours. However, in Australia, ‘children aren’t a common good. It’s your decision to have a kid and how you pay for it and make this work in your family is up to you,’ Dr Zacharias adds.

In a recent survey more than 50% of working Australian mothers said they felt discriminated against and were working with insufficient flexibility. This lack of support for working mothers encourages the pay gap. ‘When women go part time or take time out to raise a family, they miss out on work opportunities because they’re not present, and male colleagues are able to keep building careers without interruption,’ says Dr Smith.

How can we close the pay gap?  

1) Acknowledge it

The first step in closing the pay gap, is for women, men and employers to acknowledge it. There needs to be a cultural shift and active rethinking of the roles we take.

Instead of accepting inequality, employers need to be aware of pay differences and when biases and stereotypes creep in. ‘They need to make their hiring managers aware, and provide policies and procedures that don’t let this happen,’ says Dr Zacharias.

To help alleviate the interruption to women’s careers, employers could also offer more flexible work options to men so that they can shoulder an equal share of household and childcare responsibilities.

2) Know your worth

According to the Westpac International Women’s Day Report, 60% of women never ask for a pay rise (compared to 46% of men).

‘Because of gender inequality, many women feel less confident than men in trying to advance their careers. This extends to fields where salary negotiation is common. Men are more likely to overestimate their worth, whereas women can feel reluctant to argue for higher pay,’ says Dr Smith.

‘It comes down to negotiation, assertiveness and perceived value,’ says Dr Zacharias. ‘Women need to advocate for themselves in the workplace.’

3) Empower each other

Women are under-represented at senior management level, accounting for just 16.2% of CEO and 26.9% of key management personnel roles. Dr Smith says to get an equal footing, it’s important women back each other and ‘adopt the same strategies that have served the “boys’ club” to succeed’ – networking, bonding and supporting their colleagues.

‘The sheer difficulty of rising to the top can mean it’s hard for women to have the time and energy to help other women get a leg-up,’ says Dr Smith. But it’s important to remember that nobody has a career by themselves. ‘It takes a network of mentors, coaches and people who believe in you to have a career,’ says Dr Zacharias.

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Dr Michelle Smith
Dr Michelle Smith

Research Fellow, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University
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Dr Nadine Zacharias
Dr Nadine Zacharias

Equity Senior Research Fellow, Deakin University
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