Australia should consider Iceland’s strategy to overcome the gender pay gap

This article by Lisa Annese originally appeared in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free section.

Iceland started 2018 with a bold statement. The Nordic country made it illegal to pay women less than men for similar work. The first thought that popped into my head on hearing the news was: bravo.

The second thought was: how soon can we get this rolled out in Australia? How soon can businesses here be forced to prove they value the labour of both genders equally? When will they face the financial and moral consequences if they don’t?

And believe me, too many of them don’t.

Gender Pay Gap still in the Thousands

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) reports that men still out-earn women by more than $26,000 on average, with pay gaps in every industry and occupation.

While the overall gender pay gap is steadily closing, and I along with many of my fellow leaders in the diversity and inclusion space herald this narrowing disparity, I am impatient for speedier, more significant change. The pace of progress is just too slow, and there’s simply too much at stake to sit back and watch this number tick down over our lifetimes.

Pay inequality can have a devastating impact on women as they progress through their careers, and the lifetime earnings deficit that accumulates while we wait around for our workforce to move fully in the right direction could leave too many of them in poverty.

That said, I recognise that the drivers of the gender pay gap are deeply complex. And also that the government is taking action to address some of them. In July 2017, Turnbull and team launched Towards 2025: An Australian Government strategy to boost women’s workforce participation. One of this program’s key objectives is to drive childcare and early learning reforms, which in turn would encourage to families – and women in particular – to increase their workforce participation.

Caring Responsibilities a Key Factor

That’s a start, given that DCA’s report She’s Price(d)less – the economics of the gender pay gap, produced in conjunction with KPMG and WGEA, showed that years out of the workforce due to caring responsibilities is one of two key factors driving the pay gap. But our research also showed that the single largest factor contributing to the gender pay gap is sex discrimination – and that’s inclusive of direct discrimination as well as indirect factors such as unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias thrives in a climate where many still doubt the mere existence of the pay gap, or the voracity of annual statistics which, time and again, highlight the pay gap’s stubborn legacy in our society.

Some of the fictions I often hear include things such as women would “choose” to work part-time. Given that the 2016 Census once again showed that women do the bulk of unpaid caring roles in families, and given that men are paid more than women, it isn’t really a choice but a financial necessity for the higher wage earner to be in full-time work.

Another fiction is that women “choose” lower paying jobs, when research shows that when women move into an industry in larger numbers, their work is devalued and everyone is paid less. Another study shows that the higher the percentage of women in an industry, the lower its perceived “prestige”.

Myths and Unconscious Bias

Raising awareness of these kinds of myths and unconscious bias is key to overcoming the gender pay gap. We must also develop a national action plan and report regularly on the targets. While many organisations already do this, perhaps it’s time to take Iceland’s lead and introduce consequences for failing to recognise and act on one of the most stubborn problems in the Australian workforce.

The jury is still out as to how this will play out in Iceland, but in the meantime it’s something worth considering in Australia.

Read more about the gender pay gap – and how to overcome it.