Jobs Summit spotlights women in the workforce as Australia’s gender pay gap grows

Politicians, businesses, unions and key stakeholders are meeting in Canberra to try to find solutions to Australia’s economic problems.

And so far, much of the conversation has focused on women and their participation in the workforce.

Women and Finance Minister Katy Gallagher told the summit on Thursday that gender pay parity was a “fundamental economic imperative” for the country.

“If women’s participation in the labor market matched that of men, we would increase GDP by 8.7% or $353 billion by 2050,” the minister said.

Finance Minister Katy Gallagher, Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on day one of the Jobs Summit.(ABC News: Luke Stephenson)

So why is the gender pay gap growing?

The gender pay gap in Australia has increased in 2022 to 14.1%, up 0.3% since November 2021.

It may not seem like much, but it’s part of an uptick since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Until then, the gender pay gap had steadily narrowed, from a peak of 19% in 2014.

So what does the rise mean, what’s behind it, and why is it important?

Michelle Ryan, director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at the Australian National University, said statistics on the gender pay gap showed that progress towards gender equality was not linear.

Michelle Ryan smiling at the camera wearing a black shirt
Professor Michelle Ryan, Director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership.(Provided)

“Some of this could be explained by current global events, such as COVID, but it’s also consistent with trends over the past decade,” Professor Ryan said.

“Any rollback is a worry, and even if it has to do with COVID, we still have to ask ourselves why women have been disproportionately affected by COVID.”

An examination of the labor force participation rate of men and women shows a greater decline in female participation amid the national lockdown in 2020.

Prof Ryan said it could be because more women are taking on childcare duties as schools close.

“The burden of supervising homeschooled children has been borne disproportionately by women,” she said.

“Partly because women have always taken on more childcare duties, and partly because much of the work women do cannot be done at home, so women have had to give up their work.”

Prof Ryan said the industries in which women tended to work were also among the most precarious and lowest paid.

“Service industries like retail, hospitality and tourism have been particularly hard hit,” she said.

Prof Ryan said society also tended not to value work traditionally done by women, such as caring, teaching and nursing.

“We need to value these jobs and these skills because they are crucial to the functioning of society,” she said.

Regardless of industry, men earn more

In all industries – on average, per week – men earn more than women.

The biggest pay difference is in Western Australia where, on average, men earn $2,103 a week compared to $1,631 for women.

Potential Solutions

A typical reason for these disparities is that more women tend to work part-time – often to care for children – and a majority (88%) take parental leave to be the primary caregiver. , which shows how entrenched parental roles are in our society.

Prof Ryan said Australia needs to have strong policies that push the standards of women as primary care givers.

“This has positive effects later on, with fathers who have taken significant parental leave being more involved in childcare even after the leave ends,” she said.

To move towards shared parental leave, Prof Ryan said Australia could look at measures taken in Scandinavian countries, such as require that a certain proportion of parental leave be taken by fathers.

“They have a use-or-lose system where fathers can’t just give women their share of parental leave,” she said.

Business, labor and community leaders sit in rows of tables and chairs that fill the Great Hall of Parliament.
More than 140 delegates were invited to the two-day Government Jobs and Skills Summit in Parliament.(ABC News: Luke Stephenson)

The first day of the summit saw discussions on extending the federally funded paid parental leave scheme, as well as on present the government’s proposed changes to childcare subsidies.

The changes would mean families with a combined income of up to $80,000 would receive a 90% childcare subsidy for their first child.

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews, along with unions and advocacy groups, are keen to see the government speed up the reform process.

Businesses and unions also agreed on the need to extend paid parental leave from 18 to 26 weeks.

But Senator Gallagher said budget constraints meant it would be difficult.

“The Treasurer and I are also absolutely aware that we have massive deficits and a trillion dollars in debt… I wish I could fund all the good ideas that have merit,” she said.

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The gender pay gap has increased to 14.1% over the past six months.

Robert M. Larson