Australia’s gender pay gap in 2023- its causes and promising reforms

Industrial Update

Australia’s national gender pay gap (GPG) across public and private sector employers sits at 22.8%, the same as in 2021. This means women earn, on average, $263.90 less than men each week. 

The ANMF’s membership is predominantly female, with 89% of the nursing profession identifying as women. Measures to eliminate the gender pay gap are vital for our members to enjoy a healthier working life and retirement. There are many reasons for the GPG, and in the last year, a number of measures have been introduced to tackle the problem.

Caring responsibilities

Women take parental leave, some of which is paid, but most will have a period of unpaid work or be paid at a lower rate than their usual income. Over this period, it is rare for employers to pay superannuation on the paid component of leave and even more so for the unpaid period. This means that women experience reduced income while on parental leave and lose vital contributions to their super balance.

The Commonwealth Government has recently increased the period of government-funded parental leave from 18 weeks to 26. This is a positive step forward, but the rate is set at the minimum weekly wage rather than actual income. In addition, we are still fighting to ensure superannuation is paid on Government funded leave.

Lack of flexible work

After returning to work, women also lose income- it may be necessary to reduce availability to work to meet caring responsibilities. Rosters that require night shift and weekend work may be impossible due to a lack of childcare options outside of weekday times. This can lead to women either leaving the profession or cutting back on work hours. Women also bear the greatest responsibility over their working lives for caring for elderly family members, or loved ones with a chronic illness or disability. As nurses, women are even more likely to take on unpaid caring roles.

There have been welcome legislative changes to address this problem. New provisions now require employers to provide more consultation and information in response to a request for a flexible work arrangement to accommodate caring responsibilities. Employees will soon be able to challenge an employer’s refusal of a flexible work arrangement to test whether there really is a ‘reasonable business ground’ for the refusal.

Historic undervaluation

More insidious and harder to identify is the historic undervaluation of female-dominated work. As a caring profession, nursing is particularly affected by historical bias and ongoing unconscious bias. Wage rates set decades ago were discounted based on the nature of the work performed, being caring and as secondary to the primary breadwinner. In addition, the level of skill required of caring work has long been underestimated, considered ‘inherent’, and therefore undervalued.

New legislation to improve job security and achieve gender equality has created promising avenues to address the problem at Australia’s industrial tribunal, the Fair Work Commission. The tribunal must now consider whether any decision it makes contributes to achieving gender equality and job security. For example, when setting minimum rates of pay under awards, these two objective factors must be taken into consideration. The ANMF is currently using these provisions to increase wages for nurses and care workers.

Job security

Obtaining secure work is important for ensuring women are not vulnerable to the disadvantages of precarious employment. The rise of the gig economy, while offering some flexibility, does not promote secure work and can undermine wages and conditions. Casual work also impacts working women in that entitlements such as annual and sick leave do not accrue. This means any time off work for sickness or holidays is not paid.

There are new measures in the industrial legislation that will help tackle the problems of insecure work, such as converting casual employment to permanent, limiting the use of contract work and allowing clauses in enterprise agreements to make special provisions for gender equality.

The above are just some of the measures introduced into legislation in Australia in 2023. The ANMF is working to make the most of each opportunity to eliminate the gender pay gap.

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