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Forget Glass Ceilings, We Need To Smash Glass Walls

Why do we value women's and men's work differently?

09/04/2017 2:11 PM AEST | Updated 10/04/2017 2:21 PM AEST
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If you were a woman working in Australia in the 1960s, you earned 25 percent less than a man. It wasn't just discrimination -- it was the law.

A lot has changed since then. The Government has acted, women have smashed through more than one glass ceiling, and, as a result, our working lives now look quite different from those of our mothers and grandmothers. One thing has remained stubborn, though -- for the past 20 years, the gender pay gap has been stuck above 15 percent.

Last week we got a hint why that may be. Michaelia Cash, the Minister for Women, argued that changing the minimum wage wouldn't do much to fix the gender pay gap because the gap between men and women is biggest among high-income earners. She couldn't be more wrong.

The problem is that jobs and industries dominated by women are less well paid than those dominated by men.

Chances are when a senior manager sits across the desk from her colleague she's paid a little less than him. This is the gender pay gap the Minister is talking about. It is unfair and it definitely should be fixed, however it isn't the only problem. Today, much of the gender pay gap comes from the fact that the maintenance man at that senior manager's building is a man, and he's probably paid more than the female cafeteria worker. Her mother is looked after by an aged-care worker who is probably a woman, and is probably paid less than the man who services her car.

This dynamic plays out in workplaces across the country. In fact, most Australians work in industries with a gender bias. The problem is that jobs and industries dominated by women are less well paid than those dominated by men. Instead of 'glass ceilings', we should be talking about the 'glass walls' that stand between poorly paid female-dominated occupations and industries, and the more highly paid male-dominated ones. These glass walls are a major driver of women's continuing economic and social disadvantage. It is difficult to achieve financial and personal independence if you are stuck in low-paid jobs and industries.

This is why I have started a senate inquiry into gender segregation in the Australian workforce. Irrespective of what jobs men and women have, their pay must fairly reflect the difficulty and economic value of the work. That's not the case today.

The dynamic is particularly acute in the areas that involve caring, such as childcare, in-home disability and aged care, and education.

There are some people who would say that this is just the market in action -- we simply value these skills differently. In fact, that's the very heart of the problem -- we value men and women's work differently. Indeed, there is evidence that as women begin to dominate a particular profession or type of work, its pay starts to shrink compared to other jobs.

The dynamic is particularly acute in the areas that involve caring, such as childcare, in-home disability and aged care, and education. These professions are often called a 'pink ghetto' -- they are underpaid, and predominately female.

The undervaluation of these professions is partly explained by the fact that they mirror tasks that women have historically performed in the home. As a society we have been very bad at valuing care -- we don't see it as a real 'skill', or recognise it as emotional labour. Instead it's just seen as a characteristic that women intrinsically possess, and consequently it hasn't been paid for.

I look forward to unpacking why this is and what we can do about it. Innovative and practical ideas are already emerging. We're going to need them if we don't want the gender pay gap to remain unchanged for another 25 years. Glass ceilings and glass walls don't smash themselves.


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