In the 1920 Harvester case, Justice Higgins determined that unskilled male workers required a wage that was sufficient to “support a wife and three children in frugal comfort.” The century old judgement still stands today. It provides an insight into the Australian psyche: men’s work is highly valued because men are still positioned as the breadwinner. Female work is invisible and undervalued.
The gender pay gap is no secret – it’s splashed across magazine titles and Facebook posts: Australia continues to pay women on average 16% less than men. The cause of this inequality is also wellknown: a bias in hiring and pay decisions, women working in lower-paid industries and shouldering the bulk of domestic labour coupled with lack of workplace flexibility to accommodate childcare.
Yet, pay gap discourse often focuses exclusively on the experience of that CEO: the high-paid (cis, white) professional woman. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that the biggest pay gaps (of up 30%) are between barristers, financial traders and surgeons. In 2017, a male anaesthetist could expect to earn $402,384 while a female anaesthetist earned $265,932.
While that woman might be copping a salary of $136,452 less than her male counterpart, she is still in an incredibly privileged position compared to the majority of women. While it is inequitable for a gender pay gap this large to exist, a woman on a $200k a year salary does not suffer the worst effects of gender inequality.
The focus of the gender pay gap discussion needs to change, to include those who experience the worst effects of gender inequality. It needs to expand to include the women who have been excluded from the workforce due to working in unpaid domestic labour. We need to include the women working in low-paying jobs jobs or on a casual basis, with few benefits such a flexible work, paid time off or childcare. We also need to recognise that for women of colour, the pay gap is drawn along racial as well as gendered lines.
Transgender and non-binary people are also pushed to the side in a narrative that focuses almost exclusively on cis-identifying individuals. According to the US Trans PULSE survey they experience higher rates of unemployment, and earn up to $15,000 less per year.
While having women in leadership roles does significantly reduce gender inequality in the workforce, the process of reaching those leadership roles forces women to slot themselves into a corporate mould that was designed by men, for men. By doing so they do nothing to question the power systems and privilege that allow them to get to the top in the first place.
We are fed a narrative of choice in relation to gender inequality. As Clementine Ford pointed out, it is assumed that women choose to work in lower-paid caring roles because they are better suited to it, ignoring the society that genders work and then devalues work that is seen as ‘feminine’. Choice is an illusion when not every woman has the economic means to seek an education or a higher paying job as childcare options are limited and our society does not facilitate her partner sharing the child-raising role.
In a culture where men are still seen as breadwinners and women as carers, the genderpay gap will not close. Choice is a myth when society insists on women caring for the family while also contributing to the workforce. Choice is a myth when women can only work in poorly paid, casual jobs in order to manage both work and family life. Nothing will change so long as we keep persisting in the illusion that women are equal while ignoring the fact that society continues to insist on their inferiority to men.
This article appeared in the autonomous wom*n’s edition, Wom*n’s Honi 2018.