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Janet speaking on the Greens' Gender Pay Gap Bill

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 19 Mar 2018

Senator RICE (Victoria) (11:02):  I rise today to speak to the Fair Work Amendment (Gender Pay Gap) Bill 2015, which my colleague the former senator Larissa Waters introduced into this place. I thank Senator Waters for her contribution to progress towards equality and I'm pleased to debate this bill here today. We've brought this debate on today to ensure that this place retains a focus on real, concrete actions to reduce the gender pay gap in Australia. As long as the gender pay gap persists in Australia, we are failing to achieve our best as a nation. We are missing out on the best of our talent and our potential by failing to properly provide for equal pay for equal work.

This bill will help to reduce the gender pay gap by banning gag clauses, which prevent workers in various sectors and industries from discussing their pay with their colleagues. This bill amends the Fair Work Act 2009 so that any contract of employment, enterprise agreement or award that prohibits workers from discussing their pay will have no effect. It would probably surprise a few people that many workers, especially those in the private sector who are receiving a salary, are not allowed to talk about their pay with their colleagues. Many employment contracts include a gag clause, which means that workers can be disciplined or even sacked for talking about their pay. Workers should have the option to voluntarily discuss their terms and conditions of employment with their colleagues. This bill seeks to enable that. It would not force anyone to discuss their pay but it would make sure that employers could not pressure their employees to stay silent. This bill also prevents employers from taking action against employees for discussing their pay with their colleagues.

I'm not one who would usually spruik the banks but there is an excellent bank advertisement that goes to the heart of the gender pay gap. You might have seen this ad. There are several children—siblings—who are asked to do chores. They do their chores and then the boys are paid more than the girls.

All the children are shocked, none more so than the girls, and their reactions are not only heartwarming but accurate. 'It should be flat-out illegal,' one of them says. I'm not joking. I'm not being unreasonable. If you do the same work, you should get paid the same money. I have no words. It's so wrong. How does the gender pay gap happen?

Let me share some stories with you. I've known so many friends and colleagues whose career pathways seem to have a default ending of lower pay than our male colleagues. I think of the women I went to school with and went to uni with, and the trajectory is very familiar. We finished our degrees and went into full-time work—bright, energetic, enthusiastic, the world being our oyster—in our early and mid-20s. But even then, immediately after graduation, our brash, confident male colleagues were more than likely to be offered and to be paid more than us, overselling their competencies as we were often more realistic about ours. My friend and former senator in this place Larissa Waters talked about her own experience of pay secrecy during her time working on these issues. She talked about her experience as a junior graduate lawyer, a couple of months into her exciting new role, and learning that the guy sitting next to her, also straight out of uni, was earning $5,000 more each year. They were doing exactly the same job, and were so early in their careers. That extra $5,000 was a hefty portion of her overall pay. The two had equal experience as junior lawyers and she'd even got better marks than him. He inadvertently let this pay discrepancy slip in a casual conversation, but otherwise it wouldn't have been transparent or known, because of the level of pay secrecy in that firm.

There are many life circumstances that lead many women to end up with lower pay outcomes. For many of us, the time of our early careers coincides with relationships becoming serious, with moving in with our partner and with beginning a family, and our working lives then take a back seat to child rearing. Don't get me wrong. I loved having kids. But life at that time was a juggle of part-time work, paid child care, parents looking after the kids, school drop-offs and pick-ups, after-school care, feeling guilty about the kids going to after-school care too much and feeling guilty about before-school care and trying to avoid that as much as possible. I personally found three days a week to be the right balance between being there for my kids and contributing to paying the mortgage and keeping my professional life ticking over. But many other mothers I know chucked in their careers altogether, deciding to scrape by on significantly less household income in order to live a happier, less stressful family life.

I think of one friend, who trained as an immunologist. She was out of the paid workforce for almost 10 years, home with the kids until her youngest went to school, and then retrained as a secondary school science teacher. Many of these women have found it difficult getting back into their preferred careers, having to then compete against younger, more recently graduated folk. And the life skills that they have gained in bringing up kids—juggling, multitasking, being very flexible and problem solving—aren't recognised. The people who would recognise their skills generally aren't doing the recruiting. Going back to study and starting again is a common course of action, and with it come more years out of the paid workforce.

Another woman I know, who is now in her mid-40s, has a PhD in climate science. Her three kids are now aged 10, eight and five. She's back at work part-time at their primary school, working as a teacher's aide, which is really, really important work but a role that fits a pattern of being undertaken largely by women and consequently being undervalued and underpaid. She's fortunate, with her higher degree, that she's got other options, and she's now looking for work that is more relevant to her qualifications and that will be better remunerated. But she's struggling to find something more suitable, mainly because she is not wanting to work full-time just yet. If she can't find anything she'll stick to being a teacher's aide, regardless of how poorly paid it is. It's rewarding work, it's close to home and it fits in around the kids.

Other friends, even now that their kids are at high school, don't apply for promotions at work because of the expectations of lots of overtime, being inconsistent with a healthy work-life balance, and that's particularly so as our parents are ageing.

Some of my contemporaries are now taking a month or more at a time of unpaid leave to help ageing parents move into retirement villages or nursing homes, and/or they're dropping back to four days a week so that they can be available to drive their parents off to doctors appointments and physio appointments, and it goes on and on.

This bill that we are discussing today won't solve these structural problems. We are going to have to keep working on these. But at least it would mean that, when women were getting back into the paid workforce after having kids, or dropping back to part-time work, they would more likely be able to negotiate and be paid what they were worth—at least on par with that brash young male graduate who fits, to a T, the stereotypical expectations of those doing the recruiting, or that senior partner who, yes, works long hours and is always available. But does he really deliver that much more? Does he deserve to be paid that much more?

According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the full-time gender pay gap in Australia is 15.3 per cent—15.3 per cent—and this has largely remained unchanged for 20 years. While the percentage is an important thing to note, it's crucial that we understand exactly what that means in tangible terms. The 15.3 per cent gender pay gap means that women working full-time earn, per week, on average, $1,409, compared to $1,662.70 for men. That's $253.70 less. That's a difference of $13,192.40 less every year for the average female full-time worker; $131,924 over 10 years; and $527,696 over 40 years—over half a million dollars. These figures are staggering. And they are unacceptable. The private sector has a staggering 19.2 per cent gender pay gap, compared to 10.8 per cent in the public sector, and it is not unrelated that pay-gap clauses largely don't exist in the public sector and are much, much more commonplace in the private sector.

This bill addresses just one factor that contributes to the gender pay gap, but it is an important one. In their submission to the inquiry into this bill, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency reminded us of some of the other significant factors: that particular industries have different methods of setting pay and that this affects the pay gap; that industries and sectors which generally have individual agreements between employer and employee, rather than awards or collective agreements, tend to have a worse gender pay gap; and that Australian employment remains gender-segregated in many respects, with women and men traditionally working in different industries and different jobs, and there aren't many industries in Australia where gender parity has been achieved in workplace make-up. Added to this is that our society and economy largely undervalue work in female-dominated industries and jobs, whether in child care or aged care or hairdressing, and that these jobs tend to attract lower wages than jobs in male-dominated industries, resulting in significant differences in pay between men and women. The pay gap between genders is also reinforced by differences in access to education between women and men. Another contributing factor is that there is a lack of women in senior positions across the board, but especially in certain industries such as financial and insurance services, where women are paid 26.1 per cent less than male colleagues.

There are correlations, as I've already talked about, between the lack of pay equality and women overwhelmingly performing more unpaid caring responsibilities, and ending up with reduced remuneration upon return to the workforce as they potentially manage caring alongside work, or they experience role re-definition and pay changes after taking time out. And of course there are the additional effects of taking leave to fulfil caring responsibilities, such as reduced earnings and reduced superannuation contributions. Women experiencing more direct and indirect discrimination in the workplace can also be a major contributing factor to lack of promotion to senior positions. That's what happens when we see the old boys' clubs prevailing in certain workplaces and industries, and it can mean that promotions and development opportunities are disproportionately allocated to men.

These are interrelated work, family, social and cultural factors, and we must keep them in front of mind as we consider the gender pay gap and the ways we can keep driving that gap down.

The Greens had this bill drafted in order to take a step towards pay equality, while acknowledging these many other factors that influence inequality in the workplace and in pay scales. Getting rid of gag clauses will contribute to much greater pay transparency in workplaces and mean that employers will have to justify how they pay their workers, rather than allowing discrimination and unconscious bias to creep into their decision-making.

We know that when pay deals are not kept in the dark, and when workers know what their colleagues are earning, the gender pay gap is smaller, and this is demonstrated by the stark difference in the pay gap between the private and the public sectors. Shining the light on secret pay deals means that all workers, including women, are treated fairly and receive the same pay for the same job. When salaries are set through individual negotiations, and workers are prevented from discussing the outcome with each other, overall, women end up with less pay. While there's no evidence to suggest that women's abilities to negotiate are any different from men's, research shows that women's negotiations tend to be less successful than men's.

The Greens have been in this space, working to reduce the gender pay gap, for a long time. This bill was first tabled in 2015, and I would strongly urge all parties and Independents in this chamber to support this bill. As we flagged in our dissenting report on the inquiry held into this bill, we would consider amendments to improve this bill even further, based on evidence that we heard from the submissions to the inquiry. But the fact remains: women should be paid the same as men for the same job. Everyone should be paid the same for the same job. It's as simple as that. This isn't controversial. I doubt you'd find anybody in this place who would disagree that people, regardless of gender, are entitled to equal pay for equal work. This isn't women wanting special treatment. It isn't about women wanting more than men. It's simply about being paid the same as a man for the same job. At the heart of it, it's about fairness. This is what this bill seeks to achieve.

This bill isn't the only thing that we need to do to reduce the gender pay gap to zero. There are other factors at play and other structural issues that must be addressed. But what the Greens are putting forward today is one concrete step towards addressing the issues.

Reducing the gender pay gap is about fairness. Everyone should be paid the same for the same job, regardless of their gender. In the bank advertisement that I discussed earlier, one of the girls says to one of the boys, who has just been paid more than her, 'What we're trying to tell you is that it's not fair that boys get paid more than girls.' It's so simple that even children understand it. The question is: is it simple enough for this parliament to start taking some steps towards addressing the persistent gender pay gap in Australia?

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