Because women are worth it

The PSA has set a challenging goal to close the gender pay gap by 2020 for all women members. We asked Lisa Heap, who led a successful campaign in Australia, if it’s an achievable goal.

Lisa Heap

Lisa Heap, who is advising the PSA on our pay equity strategy

What is the gender pay gap?

It’s the difference between the wages or salary paid to men and that paid to women. Conservative measures In New Zealand suggest the overall gender wage gap is around 13 percent. However, we know this is an average.  In industries where women have historically made up the majority of the workforce, the gender pay gap is wider. 

It also doesn’t cover the fact that women tend to be treated differently with respect to a lot of other benefits at work, including career progression and non-monetary benefits such as cars as part of an overall package.


Why does it exist? 

We know from research that part of the gender pay gap is attributable to just being women! Historically, it was assumed that women were the homemakers and men were the breadwinners. Women were not readily accepted in paid employment and sometimes were required to resign as soon as they were married. Even where women did work alongside men, it was often enshrined in legislation that they would be paid only a proportion of the male wage.

These historical assumptions are deeply ingrained and continue, even today, to influence the difference in pay between men and women.

We also now know that part of the wage gap is explained by the different value given to work traditionally performed by women. There’s been an assumption that work associated with women’s work in the home – in particular caring and nurturing – is not skilled work but simply an inherent part of being a women so it’s paid less.


What does it mean for women’s lives?

Obviously, earning less puts women at a financial disadvantage, a disadvantage that continues and is compounded throughout their working lives. Add to this that woman are still more likely to take time away from work to have children and support the development of their families,  and the compounding loss of income over their working life is significant. 

It ultimately affects retirement earnings and many women will find themselves living in older age with substantially less than they should have.

It can also mean a loss of status, particularly in occupations or industries that are predominantly female.  The historical undervaluing of this work contributes to it being seen as of a lower status to work that men have traditionally performed.  This can influence who will go into this work into the future if it is seen as lower status.


Is the pay gap mainly in the low-paid sector?

The gender pay gap exists across the spectrum so it’s not just a low-pay issue, although some of the greatest disparities are in areas of low-paid women’s work. 

Female graduates from law school are offered lower starting salaries than male graduates.  The data suggests that even for tertiary-qualified occupations, the gender pay gap persists throughout a career.

Everyone is disadvantaged by it. Obviously women workers are, but also their families. Men working in jobs that have been historically female-dominated will also be disadvantaged by the pay gap. Our community is disadvantaged as we find it harder to attract skilled and experienced workers to do the important care work because it pays less.

Ultimately, the gender pay gap is bad for the economy and for our society.


Women have been getting less pay for ever. Is it pie in the sky to think we can finally close the pay gap?

I firmly believe that by persistent effort, we can close the gender pay gap. But it won’t be easy and there is a lot of history to overcome. However there have also been a lot of gains made along the way.  I remember in Australia in the early 2000 being told that as a country we would never be able to afford paid maternity leave – and yet we now have universal paid maternity leave.

We have to believe that we can make a difference but it won’t happen without those affected being involved and demanding it!


You led a successful pay equity campaign in Australia. What happened?

I worked on the strategy to achieve gender pay equity and a proper valuation of the work of women working in non-government community services in the state of Queensland.  Workers, service users and organisations campaigned together to get the government to recognise the status of the work and to fund it appropriately. 

We also argued before the industrial tribunal for an increase in the minimum pay rates for these workers.  We were successful and the wage rates were increased by between 19 and 45 percent. It resulted in an initial increase of $414 million of funding to the community services sector in Queensland.

The Queensland case was used to argue that all workers doing this work across Australia should get a similar increase. Workers in other women-dominated industries, such as childcare, are now organising to achieve similar results.


What lessons can we take from it?

The first lesson is that it can be done!  Everyone thought we wouldn’t be successful in Queensland. They said our argument for a 30 percent pay increase was too much. In the end, we were able to justify that that level of increase, in some cases more, was required just to bring the rates of pay to their proper level.

The second lesson is that it wouldn’t have happened simply by running the case in a court. In the end, it was the campaign by workers, organisations and the service users that created public support and put pressure on governments to make more funding available.

We needed the community to say that it was time to stop the inequity and to value these jobs differently.  That’s what made the significant difference.


What do you think will make the biggest difference our campaign?

For women workers themselves to have confidence that they are worth it, and for the community to say that the inequity has to stop!


This article is from the March 2014 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.