What would be good for mothers is closing the pay gap faster

Lisa Annese
Opinion pieces
Happy Mothers' Day Opinion piece by Lisa Annese with imagery from the Share the Care report cover

Mother’s Day is an apt time to recognise mothering. But the load of mothering doesn’t just happen on one day every year. It’s ongoing. And we need to look at what that means for women’s lives and careers.

In our latest report, Let's Share the Care at Home and Work (timed for Mother's Day), the council calls for immediate action to end the gender pay gap. While reasons for it are myriad, research shows key drivers in heterosexual relationships are women’s disproportionate share of unpaid care and domestic work lack of workplace flexibility, and time out of the workforce after having children.

Currently, Australia’s full-time gender pay gap is 14.1 per cent, meaning women, on average, earn $239.80 a week less than men. While it’s true that the pay gap reached a record low in November 2018, it has remained between 14 per cent and 19 per cent for the past twenty years. The pace of change is too slow.

Much more work is needed to eliminate this stubborn gulf. What will make a difference outside of industry biases are policies that tackle this skewed distribution of care, unpaid domestic work, and the mental load that goes into organising both these things.

The mental load – which can be thought of as incessant life admin, organising, and the frustrating cajoling of partners into remembering their domestic responsibilities – has become a common narrative in recent times. Women are the ones who bear its brunt.

And yes, people talk of women’s choices. But for something to be a genuine  "choice", alternatives need to exist; if a woman tells her male partner to watch the footy and she’ll tackle laundry, then that is a real choice. But if a woman doesn’t do it and it doesn’t get done, then there is actually no choice. Just an obligation.

The bottom line is that women have broadened their roles to be workers and earners while many men by and large have (with society's blessing) kept their roles more narrow.

Systemic gender biases mean it’s less common for many men to be primary carers and key figures in domestic life without facing stigma. So it still falls to women, even after they’ve put in a day’s work.

Three things need to happen in order to overcome this. Recognise unpaid care and work by measuring it; reduce the burden of unpaid care and work through investments in physical and social infrastructure and redistribute the work through policies that encourage men to take up more care work.

Some of Australia’s leading businesses, are introducing shared care policies which encourage men to access flexible work.

As the election approaches, government policy will be key. It should ensure affordable, available, flexible and accessible universal child care. This way, all families can access quality child care. In a form that meets the needs of children, their parents and the community – at a cost that does not present a barrier to participation.

Leading employers in Australia have just as big a role to play in making sure flexible work is available to anyone for any reason. The Diversity Council's Future-Flex research offers evidence-based guidelines for employers who want to mainstream flexibility through job and work redesign.

Encouragingly, many of our members, who are some of Australia’s leading businesses, are introducing shared care policies which encourage men to access flexible work. Telstra, QBE, Deloitte and National Australia Bank are just some of the big names currently setting a new standard.

One where shared parental leave schemes provide all parents with equal access to paid leave, use neutral language and, in doing so, move away from distinctions of primary and secondary carer.

Evidence from Sweden indicates that fathers’ use of parental leave has direct positive impacts on their partner’s earnings—with an uplift of 6.7 per cent in earnings of a partner for each month a father stays on leave.

The rest of Australia’s organisations now need to follow these new norms. Because until we incentivise men to take on care, thereby reducing the impact of unpaid parental leave and part-time employment on women, the gender pay gap is going nowhere, and Mother’s Day is a mere distraction from this fact.

Lisa Annese is the CEO of the Diversity Council of Australia.

This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald

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