Australia’s gone backwards on gender pay equality – who’s talking about that?

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Recently I attended a diversity discussion led by Catherine Harris, founder of Harris Farm and an eminent Australian businesswomen and advocate for equal rights in the workplace. The group discussed the increasing role of men in day-to-day family life, the importance of affordable childcare in closing the gender pay gap, and the arguments for and against gender quotas on female boards – conversations that have dominated, for good reason, the diversity and gender equality discourse in corporate Australia for some time now.

It was only two days later, while out to dinner with a friend, retelling the discussion, that one rather profound insight struck me about the way we traditionally think and talk about womens’ collective role in driving forward the conversation about gender equality.

It would appear to me that, subconsciously, conversations on this issue, by both genders, tend to gravitate towards framing the problem as one women should be the most proactive in solving. How often do you hear the phrase ‘women must step up’, or ‘women should feel confident applying for the role’, or ‘women need to lean in’. And then how often do you not hear phrases such as, ‘men need to be more transparent about pay,’ or ‘men need to go on specialised training to combat their unconscious biases.’ I rest my case.

This subtlety in language, whereby we ask women to get more involved in solving the problem of gender equality, rather than asking men to is, in my view, one that significantly holds back progress towards gender equality. Sure, there are some conversations about mens role in solving the problem. But they are still few and far between. In fact men being active participants in change, not just mouthpieces for good intentions is by and large the problem.

To help explain this more, let’s look at the way the gender pay gap is discussed. As context, you might be surprised to hear that the gender pay gap in Australia has actually widened in the past 10 years, from 14.9% in 2004 to a staggering 17.9% in 2015.  Unsurprisingly, when pay is set by individual agreement, as is the case in the majority of private enterprises, the gender gap creeps even higher, to 21.7%.

Don’t worry, I was as shocked as you are by these facts. And to learn that during the period in which I have been in the workforce – 2009 to now – that womens pay in relation to mens has actively regressed, I was pretty outraged. That wasn’t the equality story I was sold by school, university and the media.

To be fair, conversations are being had. We even had one at Tyro on pay during our diversity discussion with Catherine. Yet if you listen carefully to the arguments put forward on how to solve this problem, more often than not you hear variations on the same theme. The theme of ‘woman putting themselves forward more,’ or ‘women learning to negotiate better.’ If we want equal pay we are told, we just need to get better at asking for it. Ladies, it’s not men or the workforce that are holding us back, it’s ourselves!

The older I get, the more I take umbrage with this type of commentary on how we should tackle the pay inequality issue. This type of thinking has been around for decades, and while it was undoubtedly helpful 20 – 30 years ago, today, in 2016, it seems more than a little outdated. I am absolutely certain a far larger number of women are now ‘asking’ and ‘negotiating’ – we’re hardly the same shy and retiring types that made up the typist pool back in the 1950s. So if this isn’t the primary reason women are still behind the pay eight ball, what exactly is?

As Don Draper would say, ‘If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation’. And that means catching ourselves every time we ask women to take responsibility for solving a problem the male dominated workforce created. What we need is a more sophisticated and robust solution to pay that helps women drive better conversations at the hiring stage and during their salary reviews. We need better disclosure. We need better pay transparency. And we needn’t look far for inspiration. The UK is well on their way to making this a reality.

Come 2018, UK companies with over 250 employees will be required, by law, to publicly disclose their gender pay gap. This is a serious conversation game changer. Gender pay will soon become a ‘company’s problem’ rather than a ‘women’s problem’ alone. In 2018, when women in the UK apply for a role, they will know up front if a gender pay gap exists in an organisation and its extent. Power is knowledge, and women will vote with their feet.

UK companies keen to attract the top talent will soon clean up their game. Perhaps, in those industries that are considered to be the worst offenders – such as financial services, which tops the table in Australia at a staggering 30.5% – government regulation like this will be the only way to effect change. There certainly seems little incentive for them to disrupt the status quo now, even in 2016.

The great thing is, you don’t need a law to be passed to disclose your own gender pay gap as an organisation. So why don’t more do it? As a woman, conscious of my own future and earning potential, this would be a significant drawcard. I doubt I am alone.

Choosing what workplace to invest one’s time and energy into is one of life’s biggest decisions, affecting men and women alike. It affects whether young people can afford to start families and it affects how we see the world, whether we perpetuate old outdated views about gender stereotypes, or whether we move forward with our peers into a brighter and more productive future. We are shaped everyday by those we are surrounded by and the decisions we do or don’t make. We are also shaped by the decisions that are made for us by default, because we fail to challenge the way the gender pay script has been written.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then it’s clear our collective approach to the gender pay gap in Australia has to change. This isn’t a case of women needing to step up and ask. We have stepped up, now we ask that our employers collectively step-up too. This challenge belongs to all of us, and it’s time that as a society we said, enough.

 

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