Gender pay gap costing economy billions

Australia’s gender pay gap is costing our economy billions, but the solutions are obvious

Australian working women earn less than men from the moment they enter the workforce, and the gap between their pay is eroding their economic security over their lifetime.

It is costing Australia billions of dollars a year and has been for decades, yet we baulk when it comes to investing in the obvious solutions that will fix it.

The fourth edition of the She’s Price(d)less: The economics of the gender pay gap report released today by KPMG, Diversity Council Australia and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency estimates the national pay gap at $966m a week or $51.8b a year.

That’s almost a billion dollars in earnings a week that working women are missing out on, and while there are various approaches and data sources to calculating the pay gap, they all favour men.

The gender pay gap is not two people being paid differently for the same job but a measure of women’s economic positions compared to men resulting from social and economic factors that combine to reduce women’s earning capacity over their lifetime.

In real terms, Australia’s gender pay gap didn’t change between 2017 and 2020.

Gender discrimination remains the biggest driver of the gender pay gap, followed by the combined impact of family, unpaid care and time out of the workforce.

Together with the time they take out of work to raise children, care for family, run a household and their higher likelihood of returning to work part time to manage this unpaid care, the pay gap causes a cumulative effect on women’s careers and, therefore, their earnings.

Women also make up most of the workers in the jobs and industries that the pandemic showed us matter most, like early education, health and aged care, but because they are feminised, we simultaneously undervalue and underpay them.

We aren’t putting enough value on the care economy, that is, women in caring roles at home or work, and we’re all paying for it.

Just last week, Victorian MP Steph Ryan announced she was calling time on her political career for a position that would give her flexibility to juggle the demands of a young family.

Women underrepresented in government

Women are underrepresented at every level of government in Australia, and our report shows they are the minority in leadership positions in business.

They’re also overrepresented in insecure, part time, less senior and lower paying roles, but not by choice, and this must be rectified.

Australia’s gender pay gap is fixable, and the solutions are within reach. We know our governments and employers can tackle complex problems because they have done so repeatedly during the pandemic.

A combination of reformative policies is necessary

No one action will solve this problem, but a combination of reformative policies will make the difference that women and organisations, like Diversity Council Australia, have been calling for.

Many women working part time to balance careers and caring want more paid hours, and affordable, universal childcare would help, with the bonus of creating more jobs and taking financial pressure off households.

Flexible and gender-neutral paid parental leave that encourages all parents to take time off and share the care of their children equally would disrupt gender stereotypes and support women to get back to work sooner.

Better funding for sectors like early education, health and aged care to make these jobs better paid and more secure would get more women back to work and contribute to closing the pay gap and workforce shortages.

The cost of doing nothing to address the structural barriers stopping women from using their talents, reaching their potential and pursuing their dreams is a continuation and potential worsening of the gender pay gap. Still, it’s also much more than that.

While the gender pay gap and the forces driving it are not new, this new data should be a reminder of why Australia’s industries, governments and communities must work together to tackle the systemic drivers of pay inequity.

It requires targeted strategies, policies and initiatives to close the gap and specific responses from businesses, employers, industry bodies and government to create meaningful change.

Acting with purpose in addressing the gender pay gap now would not only invest in our nation’s future economic prosperity but also help overcome the current and future economic headwinds.


This piece was originally published in SmartCompany, Crikey and The Mandarin.