The gender wage gap in Australia currently stands at 15%. That means that women earn 85c for every $1 earned by a man, or more abstractly, women are only paid to work until 3:57pm in a regular business day – meaning they work 273 hours for free every year. This inequality provides sufficient moral justification for my periodic 2-hour lunch breaks but is more broadly indicative of a failing meritocracy. The gender wage gap, and indeed many forms of gender discrimination, are even worse for women of colour and transgender women. In 2018, the World Economic Forum announced that gender wage parity will be reached in 202 years, or 7 generations from now. However, the human race will probably have relocated to another planet by then, and honestly – who knows what that economy will look like? There are certain reasonable economic explanations for the gender wage gap, but none can be considered in a vacuum, and must be understood as by-products of patriarchal forces that ultimately dictate women’s choices.
Before we can look at the economic rationales behind the gender wage gap, we should bust some myths propagated by the often simplistic media narrative of workplace sexism. The gender wage gap refers to a disparity in wages on average between all men and women who work full-time, as opposed to being the difference between Paul and Paula who sit next to each other. It is generally a reflection of men tending to be: 1) higher up in workforce hierarchies than women, 2) employed in higher-paying industries than women, and 3) when all else is equal, men are paid more than the women sitting next to them (see: our federal parliament). These structural biases are far more interesting to unpack and far more difficult to dismantle than overt discrimination.
Economists (who coincidentally are often middle-class men) argue that the gender wage gap is caused by different work-leisure preferences, risk and negotiation aversion, and women working in less financially lucrative industries. This makes theoretical sense. Women happen to be the ones who disproportionately take time off work to look after their kids and/or ageing parents. Women are less likely to take risks, meaning they will opt for safer contracts (often those without bonuses or commissions, which are often very financially rewarding). Women are also less likely to ask for promotions or negotiate salaries, and are more likely to bear workplace emotional labour in the form of organising presents and parties etc (hardly tasks which point them towards the nearest promotion). These trends are supported by considerable empirical evidence but using them to ex- plain the wage gap demonstrates naivety and a lack of awareness of significant social factors which contribute to the eco- nomic decisions of women.
It is not fair, nor is it accurate, to isolate a woman’s economic decisions from the societal obligations she is burdened with. Women do take more time off from their careers to look after their children, but this choice is not made in isolation of the rest of their lives. The social norm is for women to stop working when they start childbearing, while their partners continue to work full-time. Women who buck the trend are rewarded with shame from other mothers as well as their own families, partners and friends – people who really should be on their side. This norm of women sacrificing careers for children is entirely without reasonable explanation – who says women are better equipped than men to be primary carers? Modern medicine has not yet convinced me that physical childbirth magically equips mothers (but not fathers) with a natural talent at the unglamorous tasks of parenting – changing nappies, attending parent-teacher interviews and driving children to and from after-school activities. The fact that women still undertake these parenting tasks disproportionately is not a reflection of their different work-leisure preferences, but rather of a society which conditions women to believe that their role in the world is, first and foremost, motherhood. Ultimately, young women are led into the assumption that they could have both a career and a rewarding family life – which may explain why more than half of undergraduate students are women. Unfortunately, however, these women do not see a return from their investment in education as they are forced out of work earlier than expected. As Michelle Obama plainly said in December about “having it all” as a woman in this world, “That shit doesn’t work”. At some point, the voice of the patriarchy in the back of our minds (in my case, it coincidentally sounds just like my mother) overrules our protests – we invested in this career and we should be able to stick with it! – and we accept that the life of a high-flying career woman is simply not in our cards. This tragedy repeats itself, woman after woman, until only 36.7% of full-time employees are female. Until corporations accept that in order to retain the best talent (some of whom are bound to be women), more flexible working practices are essential, women will continue to be forced out of the workforce due to their family obligations.
The theories of choice of risk aversion and negotiation aversion are similarly misleading. Whether or not it is true that women are born more risk averse – to my knowledge, we are lacking sufficient evidence on the gambling habits of newborns to know for sure – I would argue it is far more likely that risk aversion, much like holding our keys in our hands on the walk home and repressing the urge to bring up feminism at family dinners, is a learned trait of women rather than a natural one. Men will also typically apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the necessary qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100%. Risk aversion may be due to an increased awareness of women of their family members relying on them. Or, it could be an acknowledgement of what we already know – that a woman in the workforce is more vulnerable than a man.
Similarly, I’m willing to wager (despite my quite feminine dislike of risk) that a large part of why women don’t negotiate for higher salaries is due to the inner voices (again, mine sounds just like my mother) warning us against being bossy, aggressive, or overbearing. This voice leads us to fear that negotiation will cause us to lose the job offer in the first place – a concern that men do not have. It’s a classic zero-sum game, with an important caveat – that women always lose. One of the biggest factors in the wage gap is that women work disproportionately in lower-paying industries. Traditionally carer industries such as nursing, teaching and childcare employ more of our women than the high-paying finance, engineering, or IT. This disparity being rationalised as a “choice” is surely ridiculous – women have a place in the world and that place is more than just caring for others. However, the casual misogyny which resides in pubs, classrooms and on the streets, which is strengthened whenever a woman is told to “get back in the kitchen” or “settle down, it’s just a joke,” pushes women away from male-dominated industries. Even before we are subject to those comments, girls in schools are pushed away from STEM subjects and towards humanities through the (mostly) sub- conscious behaviours of their teachers, parents and the media. Internalised misogyny gives girls a handicap before they even get to consciously making career decisions. Without prevalent female role models in boys’ club industries, and without affirmative action to help women get past hiring biases in the first place, these stereotypes of men’s industries and women’s industries will only continue, with strong consequences for disparity between the genders.
Altogether, referring to the factors which lead to the gender wage gap as “economic decisions” made by women is overly simplistic and potentially harmful, as it negates the importance of social changes which could narrow the gap. What woman would ever choose to earn 15c less than the men in her life? While a 15% discount on my groceries might almost compensate for my lower earnings, it won’t nearly make up for the overall disadvantage of being born a woman. But it’s not a bad place to start.
Linda Nixon is a Bachelor of Economics / Bachelor of Laws student at The University of Sydney. She is a co-founder and current President of the USYD Women in Economics and Business Society. Founded in 2018, the society aims to increase university engagement with female students studying economics, commerce and related fields as well as providing career support and opportunities. Women who are interested in the society can find updates here: www.facebook. com/usydwebs