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Janet Rice on equal pay for women

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Janet Rice 6 Sep 2017

On Monday, we marked Equal Pay Day in Australia. That's the date past the end of the financial year that women, on average, would have had to work to earn the same amount as men—an extra two months more work, in fact. Australian women in full-time work are paid, on average, $251 per week less than men. This is averaged out across the entire workforce, but, even when women do the exact same job as a man, they are often paid less. The more the job pays, the bigger the gap. It's not because women work in low-paying industries or are less productive or less successful at bargaining. Major drivers of the gender pay gap are caused by discrimination against women where employers prefer to hire men rather than women, are more likely to reject equally qualified women or offer women less money.

Another reason is that jobs in professions predominantly staffed by women are poorly valued and poorly paid. When most employees in an industry are men, in contrast, the work tends to be considered more valuable and is compensated accordingly. Women make up the bulk of employees in undervalued, feminised industries like childcare, nursing and teaching. Women are also more likely to be working in casual or part-time positions than men. The penalty rates cut that was supported by this government targets retail and hospitality workers, the majority of whom are women. Full-time working Australian women, spend, on average, 25 hours doing housework per week compared to men's 15 hours doing housework. This unequal burden on women limits their workplace participation.

The gender pay gap also can't be explained away by women taking time to raise children. It exists from the moment women enter the workforce. A woman will earn four per cent less than a man in her first graduate job. As her career progresses, the gap will increase to almost 20 per cent by the time she retires. Less pay over the course of a career also means less superannuation and, on average, women retire with almost half the superannuation of men. This can be as much as $700,000 less than men over the course of a career. This is directly responsible for the increasing poverty of far too many older women. There is a spike in the number of older women experiencing homelessness that's associated with this, with women over 55 the fastest-growing group of homeless Australians.

What can we do about it? In Australia, we have different sets of rules in different workplaces when it comes to talking about your pay. In the private sector, it is common practice for contracts to include gag clauses that prevent workers from discussing their pay with other workers. We know that where pay is kept secret the gender pay gap is even worse. In the public sector, the gender pay gap is 12.2 per cent compared with 21.3 per cent in the private sector. The Greens have a bill before parliament to remove these gag clauses. The government says there is no place for gender discrimination in our society, yet one in five women lose their jobs on maternity leave or on returning to work. To achieve equality in the workplace, we must also encourage men to do more domestic and family labour, which requires workplaces to allow family-friendly practices for both mothers and fathers. This is good for families and for fathers. Fathers deserve to spend time with their children. In Australia, men are only granted two weeks paternity leave and most don't take it.

The Greens also have a plan for affordable childcare, including building new community childcare centres and boosting assistance for families who need it most. These are the sorts of measures that are required. We support a fair paid parental leave scheme with six months paid leave for the primary carer, up from the current allowance of 18 weeks. The Greens' better work/life balance bill expands the request for flexible working hours.

We can also fight for better pay in feminised industries, like nursing and child care, and work to reverse the callous cuts to penalty rates. The gender pay gap is not just how things are. It's not inevitable. Countries like Iceland have recently made it illegal to pay women less. We can do that in Australia, too. We must continue to fight sexism in all its forms and ensure that the work of women is valued equally to men's work.

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