Equal pay: we need to change our laws and our outlook

We’ve reached that time of year again when we can expect to read the latest on Australia’s gender pay gap. That is, the average gap or difference between men and women’s annual earnings.

Historically, early spring is when the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) publishes its gap analysis and the closer this date is to the end of the previous financial year, the better.

This year it falls on 31 August. Last year, it was 4 September. The year before, 8 September.

While this is progress, the pace is glacial.

The fact remains that on average women are paid less than men. And it’s not because they work part time or in generally low pay industries – although that is a part of the wider problem - women are simply paid less than men in every industry for doing the same job.  Estimates suggest it will be another 50 years before men and women are truly paid equally.

Which of course is unlawful. It’s been unlawful since equal pay was legislated in 1972, more than 40 years ago.

While it might be tempting to leave this to Government to sort out – to enforce the laws that are already in place – our laws are hopelessly inadequate to bring about change.

To get the change we need, we need to change the laws and change our outlook.

As I have been talking to groups about the gender pay gap, I have come to learn that a lot of people do not think the problem applies to them.

Recent research conducted by Maurice Blackburn confirms this - people are aware of the gender pay gap in theory but they aren't aware of how it affects them in practice; women and men, blue and white collar workers.

Letting people know how the gender pay gap affects their pay potential is both our challenge and our opportunity. In my experience when people come to realise how it has affected their earning potential and that of their families it becomes a number one priority for them to fix, and when it becomes their number one priority to fix it becomes government’s number one priority to fix.

Let’s just remind ourselves of what occurs when there’s a gender pay gap. For a start, there’s obviously lower salaries for women, but also lower salaries for all workers in industries dominated by women. Then there’s the so-called ‘motherhood tax’ when women take on caring responsibilities – but at the same time men are not supported to share that load. And let’s not forget that all the above results in women not being able to contribute as much to their super and retiring with less giving rise to the new phenomenon of families facing homelessness at the end of their working lives.

Contrast this with the research that shows that those organisations that pay fairly, ensure their employees can achieve their pay potential and have a diverse and inclusive workplace culture are more successful, have higher rates of staff engagement and are more profitable. It goes without saying that replicating this across every workplace this would be of great benefit to the Australian economy.

So how do we solve this problem? It requires a multitude of responses; some legislative, some cultural, but all requiring leadership.

It also needs your buy-in. If you don’t like the kind of Australia that I have described above, you need to demand that men and women are paid equally and can thus achieve their pay potential.

We are seeing progress across the Tasman Sea. Through a tripartite agreement, New Zealand has established equal pay principles that is seeing governments and private sector employees take real action to deliver equal pay.

We already have gender pay audits in this country that have seen some progress, and a number of companies have placed diversity and inclusion at the centre of their strategic plans. We are also seeing some companies take a more serious approach at Board and Management level to the issue of equal pay.

We should adopt equal pay principles in Australia to take the next step to eliminate the gender pay gap. These principles are practical guidelines for use by all employers to reduce and eliminate gender inequities; they ensure employment and pay practices are free from the effects of bias and discrimination, make systems transparent and information accessible, unpaid work is understood and valued, interventions are sustainable and enduring and employees, their unions and employers work collaboratively to achieve mutually agreed outcomes.

Equal Pay Day should fall on July 1st, every year. Let’s make it happen well before 2068.

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Liberty Sanger

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne
Liberty Sanger is a Principal Lawyer and Board member at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, and she leads our national personal injury compensation departments. Liberty is a qualified Law Institute of Victoria Personal Injury Accredited Specialist and she is recognised by the prestigious Doyles Guide as one ...

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