By Veronica Sheen
The quest for equal pay between men and women represents one of the oldest battle lines for feminism. The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) finds that women’s wages are now 17.4 per cent lower than that of men. There has been no progress for twenty years.
The EOWA cites the poor representation of women in high salary jobs, time out of the workforce for caring, and the lower valuation of work in occupations were women are concentrated as explanations for the large disparity. Eva Cox emphasises gender discrimination while Mara Olekalns attributes a cause of the disparity to the difficulties women face in negotiating pay increases.
I propose that other aspects of women’s labour market disadvantage warrant more attention as explanations for gender wage disparity. I also argue that wage parity cannot be pursued as a “feminist” or equal opportunity goal in isolation from issues of female unemployment, underemployment, and entrapment in insecure and unsustainable jobs.
Without bringing these other labour market issues to the fore of feminist and equal opportunity goals, an exclusive goal of gender wage parity will at best serve the interests of a few in elite, secure occupations but is most likely to risk failing altogether which seems to be the current trend.
Unemployment and underemployment
Over the last 12 months, the female unemployment rate – 6 per cent for full-time work – has hovered around one percentage point higher than that for males. It is also higher (5.3 per cent compared to 4.9 per cent) when unemployment for those seeking part time work is included. Close to 300,000 women are unemployed. Preston and Barns.
According to the ABS, 23 per cent of employed females (around 1.1 million) are casual workers, compared to 16 per cent of men. A casual job is essentially a job paid on an hourly basis, which enables termination without notice. It is defined by the ABS as a job without paid leave entitlements.
Occupations in which women are concentrated are the ones where jobs have progressively become more insecure. The ABS notes the high level of casual jobs in areas such as retail and accommodation/food services, which have a very high concentration of female workers.
But other sectors have also become more insecure, such as “education and training”, which accounts for 11 per cent of total female employment. One example concerns the ongoing problem in the Victorian state school system, where one per cent of teachers are on fixed term contracts.
The ACTU insecure jobs inquiry shows that insecure work has become embedded in industry and occupational sectors reliant on public contracting arrangements. 21 per cent of employed females work in the industry category of “health care and social assistance”, where many jobs are contract and casual because of short and fixed-term funding arrangements.
Insecure workers are less likely to be members of unions and less likely to be in a position to bargain for better conditions or better pay. As one participant in my study of women in insecure jobs told me:
“There are only three full-time staff and the rest on contract part time, around 35 in all (a government funded community service in a regional centre). You’re well aware if you don’t get on with your employer you might find that when your contract is for renewal you might not be in the running for it so people tend to make a lot of compromises in work situation.”
My own research and the ACTU insecure jobs inquiry show the profoundly damaging effect of insecure employment on people’s lives and the associated risk of long term social disadvantage.
Rather than being a stepping stone to better employment, many workers become entrapped in insecure jobs over the long term. If a woman loses a secure job over the age of 40, there is a high risk that she will not find a comparable job again simply because the overall opportunity to gain such jobs is so limited. There is very little support for disadvantaged workers to obtain the skills and qualifications they need to obtain better quality jobs across the life course.
Onerous work conditions
Widespread employment insecurity also fosters onerous work conditions. I have quoted some examples in a recent article about women working to difficult performance requirements under rigorous on-the-job monitoring and surveillance regimes. The central problem for women in these situations is again the entrapment effect with no pathways to better employment.
Gender wage disparity is linked to the risk of poverty for women in old age, but consideration of the long-term effect of insufficient, insecure and unsustainable employment in this equation is of equal importance.
Current developments in the labour market, particularly in relation to the growth of insecure employment, which the ACTU estimates at 40 per cent of all jobs, greatly undermine traditional equal opportunity aspirations. A large part of the problem is that that there is growing polarisation in the workforce, noted by many scholars since the 1980s, with a relatively small elite at the top, a shrinking middle, and an expanding group at the bottom in insecure work who Guy Standing calls the “precariat”.
This may mean that there is very great divergence between women in better quality, secure jobs and the mass of women in lower level, insecure, and onerous jobs. It is likely that traditional equal opportunity claims which focus on pay and promotions will best serve women at the top, a little for women in the shrinking middle, but really nothing for the rest who have no bargaining power of their own and for whom occupational mobility is so limited for structural reasons.
The fixation on gender wage parity as a core feminist and equal employment opportunity claim is insufficiently embedded in a broader vision of aspirations for women’s work that seeks to promote access to secure and sustainable jobs, promote upward occupational mobility, as well as reduce unemployment and underemployment. These should, of course, be claims for both women and men and link to the goal of decent work for all, as articulated, for example, by the International Labour Organisation.
Veronica Sheen is a Research Associate at Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry in the Faculty of Arts.