The gender wage gap is a barrier to equality – for all women

By Zoya Patel

A few weeks ago, on September 4, we marked Equal Pay Day in Australia. This day marks how many extra days a woman needs to work after the end of the financial year to earn the same amount as her male counterparts – this year, that was 65 days. This number was estimated based on the average annual earnings of a woman versus a man.

The gender wage gap is a term that gets bandied about a lot, to the point where many of us are desensitised to it. We accept that it’s not ok that women on average earn 17.9 per cent less than men, but we tend to think of it as something that doesn’t really affect us.

It is an average, after all, and one that is a result of many different things – time spent out of work, working part-time due to caring responsibilities, the lack of women in leadership, the correlation of feminised industries of work with lower wages, and more. Unless any of these situations are relevant to you, it’s easy to think you might escape the worst effects of the wage gap.

I have been known to blithely joke about the fact that my partner will in all likelihood earn more than me by the time we retire, without seriously examining the implications of this. But recently it’s dawned on me that this is no laughing matter.

The gender wage gap isn’t a sad statistic that affects only some women. It is likely to affect every woman in one way or another – in our take-home pay, in our decisions around working and having children, in our superannuation and in our future financial security.

The impacts of the gender wage gap are actually very tangible. Earning 17.9 per cent less means that most women retire with, on average, $90,000 less superannuation than men.

This correlates to the sad reality that 29 per cent of women aged over 65 live beneath the poverty line. This same demographic is also the largest growing population of homeless people in Australia.

It’s terrifying to think that I could work from the age of 16, and through a series of circumstances, end up unable to support myself in retirement. Perhaps I will have to work part-time while raising a child – a scenario that is highly possible, considering my male partner is statistically likely to earn more than me, making it a financially-savvy decision to have me be the one to work part-time. Maybe my partner and I will split up, and maybe I’ll have to further reduce my working hours to be a single mum. Working part-time will make it difficult for me to move up through the ranks, or get a promotion. My lower income will make it impossible for me to make voluntary super contributions.

I might have to work until years beyond retirement age, so that I can keep paying rent. Or maybe I won’t be able to support myself, and will rely on my family and friends to host me and my children while I try to work something out.

The fear of this is already affecting how I make decisions for myself now. I shouldn’t have to try and mitigate this inequality myself by choosing to have children later, or by putting large chunks of my pay into superannuation pre-emptively, while my partner can generally rely on the system to take care of him. I should be able to make my decisions based on the secure knowledge that the system supports women to engage in the workforce and benefit from it equally to men.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency is working to address the systemic issues that impact on the gender wage gap, and work with reporting organisations to change their policies to address pay equity. Progress is slow, but being vocal about inequality is key to seeing change in our lifetimes.

It’s important to know how the gender wage gap could impact on your financial security as a woman, to be empowered to seek better pay equity policies in your workplace, and to lobby for change at a national level.

The gender wage gap is more than just a statistic – it’s a barrier to equality that we literally can’t afford to ignore.

Zoya Patel is a writer, editor, founder of Feminartsy, and a Right Now columnist. She tweets @zoyajpatel

Feature image: Keoni Cabral/Flickr

This column has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.