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At present rates, the gender pay gap will vanish in 268 years

According to some perspectives, men and women have been obliged to work since the “fall” in the garden of Eden. This apparently has been dated to the early Mesolithic period, or 9700 years ago. Women needed to wait only another 9663 years until the early shoulder-pad era in 1984 for the Sex Discrimination Act.

Perhaps some might agree that one cannot rush matters such as enshrining in law eliminating discrimination at work on the grounds of “sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status, marital or relationship status, pregnancy or potential pregnancy or breastfeeding”.

Those people were wrong in 1984 (and before). If they still exist, they are so wide of the mark that if the mark was in downtown Canberra and they were enjoying an extended Airbnb break on Mars, it would be only a short commute compared to where they are now.

Long, difficult road to equality.

Long, difficult road to equality.Credit:Illustration: Simon Bosch

On planet Earth, one wonders whether the past 37 years have actually happened. Thirty-seven years. That is almost a complete career. Except, of course, for women who work fewer years in paid employment, but continue to undertake far more unpaid work than men. Change continues to be glacial.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics, in its Gender Report Australia (December 2020), says that “industries with the highest proportion of women and men have remained consistent over the last decade”. The top three where women outnumber men were in healthcare and social assistance (77.9 per cent), education and training (71.6 per cent) and retail trade (55.2 per cent). The top three where men are more prevalent are construction (87.3 per cent), mining (83 per cent) and transport, postal and warehousing (79.8 per cent).

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency calculates that the pay gap between men and women (calculated as 100 times the product of full-time equivalent male earnings minus the corresponding female earnings divided by male earnings) was 13.4 per cent in February 2021, indicating women earn 13.4 per cent less on average than men. Twenty years ago, it hovered just over 14.5 per cent. A 1 per cent improvement in 20 years. At this rate, we can expect pay equity for the genders in around 268 years. But hey, compared to the 9663-year wait for equality in law, this is breathtakingly speedy!

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To add injury to insult, gender discrimination is related to incidents of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. The Australian Human Rights Commission report, Gender Segregation in the Workplace and its Impact on Women’s Economic Equality 2017, notes that “the common thread is an increasing rate of sexual harassment where the domination by males of management and leadership roles increases”.

So 9663 years, then another 37 years, and yet here we are. Clearly this outrage needs addressing systematically with laws and policies that have teeth. The failure to remove inequalities in the workplace now needs direct intervention. Quotas work. We have had 9700 years to try alternative approaches. It is beyond time we get serious about an issue that is fundamental to who we are as a society.

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