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Monday, 8 February 2010
Page: 739

Dr STONE (4:29 PM) —I wish to speak to these bills, Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2009-2010 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2009-2010, in the tradition of the wide-ranging debate that such bills allow. In particular, I want to talk about an extraordinary circumstance in Australia that I do not think a lot of people acknowledge or want to believe, and that is the extraordinary gender pay gap that exists between men and women in Australia. It is an extraordinary circumstance that equal pay was granted as a right by the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission 40 years ago. I think if you spoke to the average man or woman in the street, they would say, ‘Of course, men and women should be and probably are being paid the same for equal work.’ In fact, the average industry gender pay gap stands at around 17 per cent today and, with some industries, like finance and insurance, this gap rises up to about 31.9 per cent—nearly 32 per cent—and that is an unacceptable situation. In the different states there is a lot of variation in how this gender pay gap stands. Western Australia, despite their extraordinary boom conditions and the wage potential for many workers, has a gap of some 35.7 per cent between the average income of males and females.

An excellent report called Making it fair was produced last year by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations, and I draw a lot of my data from this report. But, quite clearly, it takes more than a report being tabled in this parliament for this government to act. Despite this government claiming to be the friend of the worker, the friend of the downtrodden, the friend of those who are socially isolated or excluded, we have the extraordinary circumstance of the gender pay gap widening. It is greater today than it was five years ago.

We need to look very carefully, in today’s age of demographic strains and an ageing population, at what this will mean in terms of workforce participation and productivity into the future but also in relation to social equity—to giving all people a fair go in Australia—and I urge this government to consider very seriously why the gender pay gap exists and then to do something very deliberate and active about the problem. There are over 60 recommendations in the Making it fair report. I would hope a substantial proportion of those recommendations would be followed up, although I must confess that there is a lot about manipulating regulations and less about the various industries making some changes based on it not being acceptable in our society to pay differently for the same work.

In describing gender pay gaps a lot of people immediately assume that, because women tend to go into caring roles, roles where there is often part-time work, roles with less qualification requirements, perhaps that is an explanation for the gender pay gap and they say, ‘What do you expect if you choose to work in child care? Of course you are not going to be paid very much.’ But the point is that, in our society and our economy, the higher you go in terms of qualifications and pay levels, the bigger this gender pay gap becomes. Unfortunately, we have a situation in the business sector with women representing less than two per cent of chief executive officers in Australia. Only two per cent of Australia’s top 200 companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange are chaired by women, and this number is declining. Women who study law or accountancy make up a greater proportion of the graduates from those courses. They have more than their fair share of awards as highest achievers of results obtained in those courses in the best universities in the country. But, when they step out in their first year of employment in very similar job situations, they experience substantially less pay. This cannot and should not be tolerated, and we need to ask why this situation has continued.

At the same time as we have this declining gender pay equity, we have a substantial increase in the number of women working. Between 1994 and 2008, there was a 41 per cent increase in female employment and a 42 per cent increase in the hours worked. So women are trying to do their best in participating in the economy but it is in the face of substantial discrimination and lack of equity when it comes to their pay. Women are overrepresented in low-paying jobs and in casual and part-time work but, as I said before, that is not the reason for this substantial gender pay inequity. The gender pay inequity is most prevalent across higher paying industries where qualifications are at the degree or post graduate level.

Obviously at the heart of the gender pay gap is a failure to truly value what has been called traditional women’s work, whether paid or unpaid, in Australia. But we do have a number of definitions of what is behind this gender pay gap in Australia. I will quote the Queensland government, who elaborated on the concept of pay equity when giving their contribution to the House of Representatives committee late last year. They said ‘a larger application than equal pay’—that is, equal pay for the same work—is behind the concept of pay equity and that the concept of pay equity must include issues like:

… entrenched historical practices, the invisibility of women’s skills, the lack of a powerful presence in the industrial system—

in other words, shame on the unions—

and the way that ‘work’ and how we value work is understood and interpreted in the industrial system.

The ACTU itself has had much to say about the problems, saying:

Pay equity promotes greater labour force participation of women, enhancing the quality of the Australian labour market and assisting in sustaining the tax base of an ageing population.

Treasury modelling shows that a modest 2.5% increase in labour participation rates would produce an additional 9% increase in economic output by 2022.

So, even if we ignore the equity issues and the discrimination against women in the workplace, there are very sound economic reasons why we must address this very serious problem.

There are a number of contributing factors in this pay inequity situation. The factors contributing to pay inequity are undeniably complex and multifaceted, but let me select a few from the Making it fair report. There are ‘social expectations and gendered assumptions about the role of women as workers, parents and carers resulting in the majority of primary unpaid caring responsibilities being undertaken by women’. For a lot of employers when they look at the employment of a woman—particularly if she is of a child-bearing age or of an age when she may have an ageing parent—have an expectation that she will be less reliable in the workplace, that she will be taking time off work for her caring responsibility, at some cost to the task, job or business at hand.

Then there is the disproportionate participation of women in part-time and casual employment, leading to few opportunities for skill development and advancement. That results in a concentration of women in lower-level classifications. We know that is a fact but we also know that women who succeed in becoming well educated and, in fact, out-perform men in, for example, law courses or in banking and finance, still face inequities—in fact, some of the greatest pay gap inequities. But then there is also the ‘invisibility of women’s skills and status, leading to an undervaluation of women’s work and the failure to reassess a changing nature of work and skill. Unrecognised skills are described as creative, nurturing, caring and so forth’, rather than as highly productive and skilled.

Another obvious reason for this gender pay gap is ‘sex discrimination and sexual harassment’. Then we have ‘working in the service industry rather than in the product related markets’. There is a cultural response to work in Australia which says that if you work in services you can be paid less than if you are actually selling a product in the market or you are involved in market development.

Then there is the ‘poor recognition of qualifications, including vastly different remuneration scales for occupations requiring similar qualifications, and the way that work and how we value work is understood and interpreted within the industrial system’. For example, compare how a four-year trained preschool teacher is paid compared to a four-year trained secondary school teacher. One is vastly more undervalued than the other in the status of their work, their career opportunities and their remuneration. ‘Women receive lower levels of discretionary payment as well, such as overaward payments, bonuses, commissions, service increments and profit sharing. This is partly because in the industries where women are mostly employed overaward payments are not usually available.’

I find it shameful to live in a country such as Australia, a developed nation, in the 21st century, where this gender inequity persists and is getting worse. It was referred to in question time today, but last week I was ashamed when representatives of nursing homes in New South Wales and Queensland came to parliament. The Australian Nursing Federation tells us that thousands of aged-care nurses, in particular in Queensland and New South Wales, will lose up to $300 a week under the award modernisation program of this federal government, led by the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. I repeat: these workers—almost universally women—in the aged-care sector, one of our most significant areas of growth in demand for services into the near future, will lose up to $300 a week under the award modernisation program. How can this be tolerated? Of course we have Julia Gillard, the minister responsible for this area, denying that that is a fact:

Ms Gillard said the commission had “worked through those issues in a satisfactory way”. She said she did not accept figures that aged-care nurses could lose up to $300 a week under the award modernisation.

The decision of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission is there for everybody to read. Indeed, the new pay rates for the 15,000 award-covered nurses in the two states will result, again, in a widening of the gender pay gap for women. I think this is a disgrace. I wonder why a lot of women persist in careers like child care, early childhood education, nursing and the services sector when they can look across the room and see a male doing similar or the same work but being paid substantially more. It is an insult and a lot of women feel it is a personal affront to their self-esteem. As the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations, Making it fair, found:

The value of paid work is not only about money. Women who realise that someone else in the workplace received different remuneration levels take it as ‘a personal affront and a personal problem’ and perceive the difference in terms of how they are valued. Paid work is ‘an important aspect of … [women’s] identity and allows them to use their skills and continue to develop professionally’.

We have to worry today when we are told that this government is going to re-examine what constitutes a skill in demand in the economy. That is an important thing to do. The coalition supports close monitoring of the skills in demand in our economy and making sure, for example, that migration matches our needs in this country and the potential for newcomers to find work. On the other hand, we need to scrutinise decisions made by this government, given its record and response to pay equity issues. We also need to make sure that skills in demand, as well as wage levels, accurately reflect need and are not simply perpetuating cultural differences and, too often, the lack of power of women in the workplace.

In the 21st century, Australia is leading the world, particularly the OECD, in giving women opportunities for education. Australia is typically cited as No. 1 when it comes to women and girls having equal educational opportunity. Their outcomes in terms of completing school and completing higher education, training and university qualifications are amongst the best in the world. Of course that is a lumpy statistic. We know Indigenous women are way behind their non-Indigenous sisters. Overall, Australia can be proud of the educational opportunities it gives to women and girls.

On the other hand, we need to stand ashamed at the gender wage gap. We need to work comprehensively to, first of all, inform the population at large about the gender wage gap across all levels of the workforce, from the lowest paid to the highest paid. We have to do away with the concept that a male breadwinner typically predominates in households. It has been suggested that the higher salaries and promotion opportunities for men are particularly derived from that myth: that there is a male breadwinner in a household and that therefore management assumes men will have longer careers than women and that inevitably they will not leave the workforce to rear children as women will.

There is a whole range of problems for women with this government, including its extraordinarily poor response to paid parental leave. I was quite shocked to look at the details of the government’s policy for paid parental leave which is due for delivery in 2011. It will provide way below six months of paid parental leave—universally regarded as inadequate, particularly by the Productivity Commission. There should be at least a six-month opportunity for a woman or a primary carer to be with their newborn. That amount of paid parental leave, as presented at the moment by the Labor government, is an insult to women.

We also have a decline in funding for women who experience domestic violence. There has been a decline in funds to help train women in English language, particularly refugee and migrant women. We have seen the support for dysfunctional families falling away across Australia. We have seen the emergency response to the crisis in Indigenous communities in Northern Australia not continue to be delivered in the way that the Howard government began. We have example after example of this government paying lip-service to equality and social inclusion. It even has a title of ‘social inclusion’ tagged on to the Deputy Prime Minister. When you look to see what is happening for men and women in Australia, particularly women, you will be significantly concerned that indicators of equity and a fair go show that women are doing much more poorly. Women are having a much more difficult experience with life chances and life circumstances than they did under previous governments—for example, the John Howard government.

I do not know why we continue to tolerate the gender equity gap, but I will be doing all I can as the shadow minister for the status of women to put forward policies that do the right thing for Australia’s women. It is important in terms of women’s experience of life in respecting our values of social justice and equity. It is also of critical importance for our economy as we approach a time where additional productivity will be essential to deal with an ageing population. We know that women will more often be the poorer aged Australians in the years to come. There is a feminisation of poverty in Australia. I do not think anyone should be other than shocked and concerned about the level of poverty that women experience compared to men. It is not tolerable, but it is tolerated by this government and I think that is a dreadful shame.