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It's Time To Talk About Equal Pay

04/09/2015 5:41 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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After 7 years of student life, balancing casual hospitality work with study, I was pretty excited to finally have a regular, full-time wage when I started working as a junior lawyer.

But my excitement crumbled a couple of months in when I learnt that the guy sitting next to me, also straight out of uni, was earning $5000 more. We were doing exactly the same job and, so early in our careers, that extra $5000 was a hefty portion of our overall pay.

What's more, we had equal experience -- i.e. next to none, as we were both just out of uni -- where I had gotten better marks than him! I never would have known there was any difference in our pay unless he'd let his salary slip in a casual conversation.

Not long after, I became a lawyer for the Environmental Defenders' Office -- my dream job, second only to my current one, of course! Despite the immensely valuable work the community legal sector performs, overall pay is way below the private sector. On the upside, public interest work was infinitely more in keeping with my values, and what's more, the salary was transparent. Being on an award wage where pay rates were public, I knew that there was no scope for secret discrimination and that I would always be paid the same as my equivalent colleagues, regardless of gender.

In Australia, we have different sets of rules in different workplaces when it comes to talking about your pay. In the private sector, it's common practice for contracts to include gag clauses that prevent workers from discussing their pay with one another. We know that where pay is kept secret, the gender pay gap is even worse. The gender pay gap is much smaller in the public sector (12.2 percent), where workers are allowed to talk about their pay, compared to the private sector (21.3 percent) where these gag clauses exist.

Removing gag clauses in employment contracts is a practical step we can take toward finally achieving equal pay. The gender pay gap is still stark, with women earning on average 17.9 percent less than men for full time work.

In 2015 modern Australia, the gap between men and women's income should be rapidly closing but alarmingly it's getting worse and worse. The inequality extends to assets, with single men under 35 having on average 89 percent more wealth than single women under 35. And to superannuation -- women have on average about half the super balance of men.

There's a lot to do to fix financial gender equality. Removing pay gag clauses won't solve everything but it's one practical step we can take. I'm putting a bill to the federal Parliament to achieve this by giving workers the power to discuss their pay. Some people will still prefer to keep their pay private and my bill won't force anybody to talk about their pay, it will simply give workers the choice.

We know that women lose out in secret pay deals. When salaries are set through individual negotiations and workers are prevented from discussing the outcome with each other, overall, women end up with less pay. While there is no evidence to suggest that women's abilities to negotiate are any different from men's, research shows women's negotiations tend to be less successful than men's.

Research shows women are also less likely to negotiate and instead to accept the first pay offer, which is exactly what I did as a law graduate. I took what was on the table, while my male colleague asked for more and ended up with that extra $5K.

While some women are being encouraged to 'lean in' to try to personally combat discrimination, we also need structural change to stop discrimination across-the-board. As part of that, we need to allow workers to talk about their pay with each other so that inequality cannot live on hidden away.

All those years ago, when my colleague accidentally let it slip that he was paid more, I was in a bind because technically he wasn't supposed to have discussed his pay with me. Without the gag clause in place, I could have gone to my boss to ask for more money armed with the evidence. As it turned out, private law firm work wasn't helping me change the world and I happily left for public interests community legal work, but my affront at not being paid fairly according to my ability remains.

It's a shame that more than a decade later, women could still be in the same position, losing out on thousands of dollars.

This is about real money, for real women, who deserve every cent of equality.

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