Valuing women's work

in Report Commentary , Tagged gender equality, Gender pay gap, Employment.
  • au h Kathy MacDermott

    Kathy MacDermott

    Dr Kathy MacDermott has taught in universities in Australia and the United States and worked in the senior executive service of the Australian Public Service in the areas of industrial relations policy and public sector governance. She is a member of the Democratic Audit of Australia and the Centre for Policy Development.

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Report Commentary:

Gender segregation is getting worse not better, according to Dr Kathy MacDermott. As part of a BroadAgenda series on work segregation and the pay gap, we asked MacDermott, who is both researcher and a former senior executive in the public sector, for her take on the recently released Senate committee report: 'Gender segregation in the workplace and its impact on women's economic equality.' Here's her blog commentary: 


It is important to be clear at beginning that the Senate report on workforce gender segregation was prepared by a Labor-dominated committee. Coalition senators objected to it, basically arguing—despite the evidence - that existing initiatives will fix the problem of gender segregation if left alone.

In fact, gender segregation is increasing under existing arrangements. According to recent data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, traditionally female-dominated industries such as Health Care and Social Assistance and Education and Training have seen their proportion of women increase further. While some male-dominated industries (including Electricity, Gas, Water and Waste Services and Transport, Postal and Warehousing) recorded growth in female representation, others (such as the Construction and Wholesale Trade) have recorded a decline.

In fact, gender segregation is increasing under existing arrangements.

Yes, glass walls exist, standing between industries and between occupations within industries. They restrict career choices for both women and men. They limit productivity by reducing efficient labour allocation. They also play a significant role in ensuring that full-time women continue to receive 84% of full-time men’s earnings. Studies vary, but a 2014 report found that the segregation of men and women at work accounts for around 30% of this gap.[1]

... full-time women continue to receive 84% of full-time men’s earnings 

A substantial earnings difference has been built into the Australian system from the beginning. In 1919 the basic wage for women was set at 54% of the basic wage for men. This was not because of the value of the work—it was because women were not regarded as breadwinners.  In cases where women were not competing against men for jobs—cases of gender segregation—skill margins above the basic rate were set at 54-75% of men’s.

Even after the basic wage was reset at a common rate for men and women in 1974, the wage discount for being a woman remained embedded in their skill-based classifications. In many cases it still sits there, and existing equal remuneration legislation has been very ineffective at getting it out.

Ever since they were first introduced in 1993, the equal remuneration provisions of the Fair Work Act have been interpreted by the Commission as requiring women’s work to be compared with men’s work to establish its value.  In a highly gender segregated workforce, comparator classifications of men undertaking work similar to women’s were naturally limited, and demonstrating equivalent work value between classifications of women and men doing different jobs gave rise to interminable arguments about how work value was to be determined.

.... demonstrating equivalent work value between classifications of women and men doing different jobs gave rise to interminable arguments about how work value was to be determined.

Experience in the few successful equal remuneration cases - mainly at state level - shows that women’s work will continue to be undervalued until the current legislation is amended to recognise traditional undervaluation of work on the ground that it is female dominated. Not comparators, but sex-based, historical and ongoing undervaluation. 

... women’s work will continue to be undervalued until the current legislation is amended 

This is what the recent Senate report recommends, and this is what the Coalition dissenters are resisting. Their given reason for this is is that the proposals ‘potentially duplicate or weaken existing initiatives’. But it is certainly also relevant that much of women’s work is in industries associated with what the Government likes to call ‘bad debt’ - that is, industries with recurrent costs such as health, education and social support. Fortunately for men, they predominate in work that is associated with ‘good debt’, such as building and construction.

Will Australia meet its G20 target of reducing the gender gap in workforce participation by 25 per cent by they year 2025? From a gender segregation perspective it does not matter. Gender segregation does not restrict women’s workforce participation - what it does restrict is women’s access to career choice and to fair pay. And it’s increasing.

Gender segregation does not restrict women’s workforce participation - what it does restrict is women’s access to career choice and to fair pay. And it’s increasing.

The consensus among jurisdictions comparable to Australia is that unequal sharing of family responsibilities between men and women continues to consolidate feminised industries, because those industries have been configured around part-time, casualised, and undervalued work.  This means that women congregate in segregated industries/occupations, and that men will not enter them.

Did we need another parliamentary report on this? We certainly need to amend our ineffective equal pay legislation. Even if the Coalition Senators are uninterested in pursuing change, it is at least now clearly on the table and may even stay there through the next election.


[1] She’s Price(d)less The economics of the gender pay gap Update Report prepared for Diversity Council Australia (DCA)and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) https://www.wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/gender-pay-gap-economics-full-report.pdf

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