I’ve been burning to write this. And with two surveys out just this week that support my case, I feel like it’s just the right time.
So what’s my beef? It’s that I suspect we’ve still got this gender equality thing all wrong – wrong because we continue to focus on some pretty serious assumptions about not only what men and women want out of work, but what they are capable of getting out of it.
With many women feeling undervalued and many men working longer hours than ever, I don’t think the status quo is working particularly well for either of us. Australia was ranked 24th in the world according to the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, so it’s clearly time for a re-think.
The first assumption is that women earn less than men and therefore they should assume the role of primary caregiver (yes that’s right, I’m calling this widely acknowledged pay gap an assumption, but stay with me because this needs further unpacking).
The second: that every man wants or needs to work full-time.
And the third is that because of these seemingly unavoidable child-rearing career gaps, and/or because of a lack of acceptance, women will never be equivalently represented in top leadership positions.
In all fairness, if we are to glance around at the 10 per cent of women in key management roles in ASX 500 companies and the four per cent of CEOs in the ASX 200, then it’s no wonder the majority of us think those three assumptions are a kind of reality we all face – and to many that’s even understandable. After all, we’ve seen within just one generation the ideal partnership of the full-time male breadwinner and the full-time care-giving woman alter irrevocably. Since the 1960s we’ve doubled the number of dual-earning households, accommodating serious and widespread careers for women.
So the idea follows, then, that with just a bit more change, women can have it all, right? But hold that thought and think about it just a bit more. Are we even close? Have we actually made the structural changes necessary for real change?
In an effort to argue for more radical changes than a simple increase in wages and higher allocations of women to boards, I’d like to challenge the three assumptions above with some other ideas, and some support from the HILDA longitudinal survey and the Graduate Careers Gender Wage Gap Analysis released this week.
First, to the pay gap, because I know you’re probably questioning whether I’ve been looking at the same stats you have! Like most people, I took one look at the ABS-reported gender pay difference of 17.1 per cent and swore such a significant gap meant women were simply being underpaid based on gender.
That was, however, until yesterday, when I read the latest study from Graduate Careers Australia. The study looks at recent graduates of all Australian universities and some private institutions, and is of particular interest for those looking at gender equality because it measures differences in pay for recent graduates only. The figures therefore reflect salaries given to employees on fresh-faced value, before the issue of experience – and particularly of eventual career gaps that lead to comparatively lower experience levels for women – becomes relevant to salary levels later in life.
The most interesting finding of the report was that while there was at the outset what appeared to be a 9.4 per cent difference in pay between men and women, once the survey accounted for age, level of education and training, occupation choice and region employment characteristics, the remaining unaccountable difference in pay was reduced to just 4.4 per cent.
Once the analysts worked their way through the various reasons that made up the 9.4 per cent discrepancy, it became clear that the majority of the gap was the result of there being highly gendered occupation choices, rather than differences in the amount of pay offered between the genders for doing the same jobs. For example, men were over-represented in fields with higher starting salaries such as engineering, where females were over-represented in the lowest paying humanities professions. From this report at least, it seems the pay gap may not actually be a pay gap at all, but a choice gap.
But of course, there is still a gap. So how do we close it? Put simply, if women are encouraged to consider higher-paying occupations such as a range of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, roles (where women are currently gravely underrepresented), we would then see the number of women out-earning men increase, and the so-called gender pay gap reduce. But it’s not entirely that simple and this leads me to a harder question: why aren't women choosing higher paid occupations?
The HILDA survey reports that a significant 25 per cent of women are out-earning their partners by at least 10 per cent. So if it’s possible for some, and girls generally outperform boys in high school, then why aren’t more women choosing higher paid professions? Is it because of gender stereotypes? Or does the need to eventually balance work and family life affect their initial career choices?
The HILDA survey reports that there was a sharp increase in the difficulty faced in securing appropriate childcare. Compounding that is the fact that even in female breadwinner households where the female is the main earner, the male partners generally continue full-time work. This is not the case for the majority of male breadwinner households, where the female generally works part-time.
On the whole, women still do 12 hours a week more caregiving and eight hours a week more housework than men (arguably another form of caregiving) – and this hasn’t shifted much over time. With that amount of housewifery equating to three 8-hour days worth of family labour a week; we can see how this future commitment might play on the minds, even subconsciously, of younger generations of women who are thinking about their career choices.
So what if men could better share the load? Here’s where it makes sense to move to that second assumption: that every man wants or needs to work full-time.
Despite the fact that most men continue full-time work regardless of whether they are the main breadwinner or not, the fact is that the central model of the permanent full-time worker has been broken down, and now a third of employed people work on other terms – be that as a casual, independent contractor, self-employed person or via an agency. These days, 30 per cent of us work part-time.
Such a move might once have been a cause for concern, but the assumptions that part-time or casual work is detrimental to your health, mental wellbeing and hip pocket have all been examined by Professor Sue Richardson of the National Institute of Labour Studies at Flinders University, and established as unfounded. Richardson says:
‘The evidence so far suggests that women of all ages, and both young (student) and older men would welcome opportunities for employment that did not require unrelenting full-time engagement, and that were compatible with study, caring for family members, and declining health and energy. These options could be provided by secure part-time work, and this has been on the increase.’
Richardson says that men in permanent full-time jobs work an average of 44 hours a week, with a quarter working 50 hours or more. Of those men, 30 per cent say they would like to work fewer hours than they do (taking account of the effect on their pay). She even goes on to note that working longer hours is much more harmful to mental health and job satisfaction than under-employment, and quotes a 2009 study by Drago et al. which suggested ‘long hours, at least in Australia, may often represent a badge of masculinity.’
If men are on the whole working too many hours, and a large proportion of them would work less if given the chance, perhaps even more if it was more culturally conventional, then why are we not giving them that chance? If it’s understood that a woman transitions into part-time work when they have children, then why is it less acceptable for a man? Wouldn’t true equality be represented by men and women sharing their caring duties and both achieving a better work–life balance, with neither forced into career breaks?
Richardson also notes that Australia offers unusually good protection for people working on flexible terms. There is 20-25 per cent casual loading to offset the lack of paid leave and the same protections as other workers against unfair dismissal, discrimination, access to carer’s leave, penalty rates and superannuation. In fact, Richardson’s report shows that both men and women have higher wages than otherwise, if employed either part-time (10 per cent) or on casual terms (five per cent).
But even though the conditions of part-time work seem good, with the cultural pressure of over 78.5 per cent of men still working full-time, can we be sure that they would be happy to work less hours and take on more care responsibilities?
This lack of flexibility for men causes me to wonder if the status quo is still in place because society continues to consider men as more capable leaders than women. The Graduate Careers report suggests men are going for higher yield occupations with a focus on career building, where women’s preferences are for occupations that might be easier to step in and out of. The tendency to see the genders split between such roles would certainly perpetuate the lingering perception that we need men at the helm and women at the Hoover.
So, finally, we get to that last prevailing assumption that women – whether on account of gender stereotyping and/or because of their gaps in experience – aren’t getting to occupy as many top positions as men. Are we right to assume it’s simply because of their time as carers that they fall behind?
One way to answer that question is to look at career progression for women in comparison to men. According to HILDA, the rate of promotion over a nine-year period was 31 per cent for males and 26 per cent for females. There is of course a bit of a difference here but at five per cent, similar to the 4.4 per cent difference in graduate salaries, but it is not insurmountable. From these figures it might even be safe to assume that if men are able to achieve more flexible work, and more women are therefore able to participate in work over longer periods of time, then it’s entirely possible to follow this trend line and eventually see more women getting to the top of their fields.
I’m not going to make a case for why women would make better leaders than men or vice versa, as just like the unexplainable pay gap, it puts the focus on an area that can’t be rationally addressed. Just like dancing, cooking, debating and driving, there are good and bad amongst both sides. But the more that flexible work is an accepted option for men, the more professionally engaged women will be able to remain.
It stands to reason that the more women are able to keep skin in the game, the more likely they will be able to reach the top. And if I can go even further, the more common it is to have women across all sectors, the less likely we will be to pull them down at their first fail.
What? You might think that in the current context giving men more rights sounds a bit rich, but tell me this: how can women expect to be able to work flexible hours without disrupting their career progress if men can’t? I can’t think of a time in history where a woman achieved a lifestyle advantage before a man, and I just don’t think it’s about to start happening now, but more importantly, we can’t reduce a 12 per cent gap in workforce participation between genders until we understand that caregiving can be shared.
If these numbers can tell us anything, it seems it’s to stop focusing on gender pay discrepancies and to make it ok for men to be carers too. We need to make more space to share the load; men deserve to experience a richer family life and the opportunities for women depend on it.
And just in case you think I’m the only one, I’ll leave you with the words of Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick:
‘Having been in my role for six years now I have become more and more convinced of one thing. And that is – that to deliver equality for women we actually have to focus on men. ... Significant cultural change will not occur unless, and until, men start working differently – more flexibly.’