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Work & Organisation Society hosts Equal Pay Day panel

Our egalitarian society is not reflected in working women’s pay, writes Nick Sunderland

One of Australia’s most pernicious and pervasive discrimination issues received due attention last week as the Sydney University Work and Organisational Studies Society held its annual Equal Pay Day event.

It has been a big year for gender pay policy in 2012, with a number of new policy initiatives adding a strong context for the evening. The equal remuneration case in front of Fair Work Australia was finally resolved in June this year and established a new approach to gender equality, which argued that the Queensland social care sector is underpaid due to the fact that it was mostly feminised.

There have also been calls in the last few weeks from the federal government’s Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency for businesses to start to quantify their gender targets within their organisations rather than rely on vision and goals.

These developments provided a rich pool of current issues to draw upon, and the event’s panel discussion at the New Law School didn’t disappoint.

University of Sydney academic Susan McGrath-Champ opened the discussion by outlining the state of the problem. Despite widespread assumptions that the gender pay gap is decreasing and women’s conditions are improving, the experience has been markedly different. The current gender pay gap between the average full time earnings of men and women sits at 17.4 per cent, remaining largely unchanged since the equal pay for equal work legislation was introduced in Australia in the 1980s. Nor is this something that only affects mothers or older women, with the gender pay gap starting at $2,000 a year at the point of graduation.

While the gap between the existing legislation and the actual operation of policy was highlighted by Melanie Fernandez from the Women’s Electoral Lobby, the feeling of disappointment turned to shock as Lisa Cabaero from the Asian Women at Work organisation described the working conditions of some of her organisation’s members.

Ms Cabaero recalled stories of women routinely working in hospitality for $8-10 an hour, while out-work rates in some situations were averaging out as low as $3-5 an hour. With challenges such as these, the notion that change could be made with legislation alone stands as a truly optimistic vision.

While the debate on cause, identification and response was wide-ranging, what was certain is that our ideas of Australian egalitarianism still mask a deep inequality that exists for many members of our society.