Apparently, women are less ambitious and worse negotiators than men
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Apparently, women are less ambitious and worse negotiators than men

I spend a lot of time talking about the gender pay gap. For the most part, I hear how seriously employers take this issue.

Occasionally, I hear that the gender pay gap is due to the choices women make or the fundamental differences between women and men. Apparently, women are less ambitious than men and are worse negotiators than men.

Libby Lyons.

Libby Lyons.

Women “choose” to have children and “choose” to work part-time. But, interestingly, women are better suited to caring.

At the heart of this commentary is an inherent acceptance that the work women traditionally do is of less value than the work men do. And a blind acceptance of the harsh economic reality this often inflicts on women over the course of their lives as a result.

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Let’s be clear from the outset: the gender pay gap is caused by the barriers women face at work, the stereotypes women confront in life and sometimes because they just get paid less.

In Australia today, the gender pay gap shapes women’s lives. Women earn less over their lifetime and, consequently, they retire with, on average, 40% less superannuation savings than men.

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The Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s data shows that men out-earn women in every industry and occupational level. Women are under-represented in senior executive and management roles. Female-dominated occupations and industries attract lower pay than male-dominated ones.

Women do work part-time at three times the rate of men, but we need to look at why rather than just accept it as the norm. For many women, it is the only way to balance their paid and unpaid work commitments.

What some in our society choose to take for granted is that women should do the bulk of unpaid caring and domestic work. This double burden is taking its toll on women. The 2018 Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey found that women are spending more time in paid employment yet they still devote 13 hours more on unpaid work a week than men.

The gender pay gap is caused by the barriers women face at work, stereotypes women confront and sometimes because they just get paid less.

More women are now graduating from Australian universities than men. Unsurprisingly, these female graduates, like their male counterparts, are looking for full-time work. So, it would not be unreasonable to expect a level-playing field between women and men in the average starting salaries for graduates.

Not so. The results of the 2018 Graduate Outcomes Survey shows that most industries have a gender pay gap in favour of men.

In 17 out of 21 study areas, men’s starting salaries were higher than women’s. Only in Rehabilitation and Veterinary Science were women’s starting salaries higher than men’s and it was only in Engineering and Computer and Information Systems that graduates could expect the same average starting salaries regardless of gender.

Can anyone seriously claim these discrepancies are solely due to the fact that Australian female graduates lack ambition or don’t like negotiating?

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Last week, in partnership with the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, we released the 2019 Gender Equity Insights Report. Two of its findings showed just how much circumstances can shape women’s choices.

We have suspected for some time that the normalisation of flexibility and the provision of employer-provided paid parental leave are crucial in supporting women to stay in the workforce and improve their representation in management. We now have some hard evidence to support our suppositions.

The report identified that implementing normal flexible work arrangements and reporting this to the board significantly increased the number of part-time female managers. It also told us that female managers are twice as likely to return to work if their employer provides 13 or more weeks of paid parental leave.

What disappoints me most about pay gap sceptics is their acceptance of the status quo ... that women should endure less economic security.

These findings reveal that if you change the working conditions available to employees, the choices women can make change too. Access to paid parental leave and flexible work arrangements actually enables more women to choose to return to work and so stay in the workforce.

What disappoints me most about pay gap sceptics is their acceptance of the status quo. Their acceptance that women should just endure less economic security than men. The findings of this report show that you can change the status quo if you change the rules.

Change happens when people demand it. Had the suffragettes not challenged the status quo over 100 years ago, who knows when women would have got the vote? Had my grandmother Dame Enid Lyons and Dame Dorothy Tangney not challenged the status quo in 1943, who knows when women would have been elected to Australia’s federal parliament? Had Australian women not challenged the status quo in the 1960s, who knows when women would have won the right to equal pay?

By accepting today’s status quo, you are saying it is acceptable for Australian women to be paid less, on average, than Australian men, for women’s work to be undervalued and for Australian women to retire into poverty in ever increasing numbers.

I don’t believe this is acceptable. I don’t believe most Australians do either. This International Women’s Day, let’s make the commitment to work together – employers and employees; women and men – to close the gender pay gap for good because, guess what, women do not choose to be paid less.

Libby Lyons is the Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

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