Pigeons come home to roost: toxic gender pay gap is exposed by the pandemic

Feb 10, 2022
doctor mask covid 19 coronavirus
The pandemic is showing the effects of low pay in health, aged and home care and the many other related needs for personal support and expert care. (Image: Unsplash)

Those in power must address the gender wage gap to ensure the capacity of governments and services to employ more health and community workers.

It’s 50 years since I joined the newly formed Women’s Electoral Lobby to advocate for feminist equality goals, including equal pay. These serious changes were our optimistic targets in an expected federal election late that year. After 23 years of conservative Coalition rule, we thought that change must be possible, and it was.

In December 1972 Gough Whitlam’s ALP was elected and took early action to address the question of equal pay. The Hawke government  added to moves to close the gap in pay rates. But the gender wage gap has not closed in any substantial way and is particularly resistant in jobs that are feminised and may reflect or derive from household and unpaid, community areas.

By the beginning of the 21st century there had been changes to some low pay rates. Programs such as STEM encouraged women into male jobs to raise their pay opportunities. However, there was no serious attempt to fix the gender biases on skills. Interestingly, men who chose to fill feminised jobs such as nursing and teaching ended up disproportionally highly as directors of nursing (matrons) and headmasters. Lower level jobs in these areas were not raised, which suggests more gender biases.

Before the Labor-devised changes, we still had a basic wage that was to cover a breadwinner male costs of supporting a family, so women were paid two-thirds as much. Despite the extension of the agreed wage in full, the gendered pay rates survived as (theoretically) equal pay for work of equal value continued to undervalue feminised skills and jobs. So, this is how there is still a 14 per cent gender gap in average wages, up 1 percentage point from last year.

The pandemic has clearly established the unmet needs for the increased numbers and skills of healthcare workers and other forms of personal care and support. Too many of the current workers are low paid and often underskilled to meet the increased numbers and needs of those infected.

The ongoing error was the failure to include serious reforms and inclusions to the criteria used to set male pay rates to include the real value of the many different types of jobs that were filled mainly by women. Their origins were often in unpaid work. These included valuing of what had been socialisation, personal care and domestic roles in households.

And now this pigeon has come home to roost. The pandemic is showing the effects of low pay in health, aged and home care and the many other related needs for personal support and expert care. Aged care and children’s services, for example, were already very understaffed. The extra demand is covered by double shifts and extra hours by existing staff.

This may briefly ensure services for the vulnerable but cannot last. It is already leading to their health damage and resignations. The PM’s offer of a small bonus one-off payments will not replace adequate remuneration.

It’s time to make clear to those in power that they must address the gender wage gap to ensure the capacity of governments and services to employ more health and community workers.

This gap derives from the decades of failure of the nation’s wage arbitrators plus to assess the many feminised jobs and skills fairly, i.e. without inbuilt gender biases. Decisions on the value of paid work roles retained a predilection that the masculine occupations required training for measurable skills and knowledge, tools and knowledge. The feminised ones tended to reflect mainly woman’s domestic and personal skills, ergo were less valued. They ignored the ‘soft’ skills, as these were often informally gained and more natural, so not valuable.

These analyses are my own assumptions and descriptions of the failure of decades of activist failures to close the pay gap. Some supportive data:

  • The average aged care support worker salary in Australia is $55,400 per year or $28.41 per hour. Entry-level positions start at $54,157 per year.
  • The average home care worker salary is $56,531 per year or $28.99 per hour. Entry-level positions start at $50,310 per year, while most experienced workers make up to $69,192.
  • The average personal care assistant salary is $57,233 per year or $29.35 per hour. Entry-level positions start at $52,440 per year, while most experienced workers make up to $78,592.
  • The average nursing assistant salary is $52,280 per year or $26.81 per hour. Entry-level positions start at $48,281 per year, while most experienced workers make up to $73,037.
  • The average surgeon salary is $195,096 per year or $100 per hour. Entry-level positions start at $113,473 per year, while most experienced workers make up to $203,462.
  • The average firefighter salary is $74,248 per year or $38.08 per hour. Entry-level positions start at $59,500 per year, while most experienced workers make up to $100,596.

 

Conclusions

Governments must address the many problems created by women’s lower wages. Long hours, high demands and high risks have triggered illness and stress, lowering staff numbers. There are far too few applicants for jobs. Staff shortages, extra shifts and overload are being reported. The results are serious threats to recovery from the pandemic, more deaths and massive distress.

Feminised skill contributions may be developed in families and communal settings. They are not of less value than those formal qualifications that create trades and buildings. Social skills, personal supports and communications are essential for wellbeing. We need to urgently discard the current models of evaluation of skills which are based on outdated male criteria of what is to be valued as paid  and unpaid contributions to societies.

 

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