Transcript: Jenny McAllister on ABC Radio RN Breakfast on Gender Segregation

8.00am | April 26, 2017



FRAN KELLY: Australia has one of the most gender segregated workplaces in the world. This is according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, and there been almost no progress on this front made in the last twenty years. With some industries like Healthcare, things are actually getting worst, just one in 10 nurses in Australia is male. There are even fewer women working in the most male dominated industries, Construction. Economists say that concentration of women in lower pay industries is a major driver of the gender pay gap. A Senate Inquiry is trying to get to the bottom of this issue, and holding a second round of public hearings today in Sydney. Senator Jenny McAllister is a Federal Labor politician from NSW, she is the chair of this Inquiry. Jenny McAllister, welcome to Breakfast.


KELLY: We know companies in the Health and Aged Care sectors are desperately seeking new workers. We know traditionally male dominated industries like Mining and Manufacturing are shedding jobs. Are men moving into the fields where the vacancies are, and if not, why not?

MCALLISTER: I think we’re seeing some movement, as men start to consider their opportunities in the labour market. You noted correctly the labour market is being reshaped. But it is difficult for either men or women to get by on some of the very low wages that are available to them in these caring sectors. That is one of the real areas of focus for me in this inquiry, thinking about why it is that these professions, which are so significant in terms of caring for the elderly, people with disability, for children, receive such low remuneration. 

KELLY: Give us some comparison so that we've got something to know what we are talking about. What is the comparison of the average wage of someone in what we might called a caring occupation, in the health care sector, aged care sector, as against someone in the male dominated sectors, let’s talk about mining or construction.

MCALLISTER: We’re seeing differences of 30 or 40 thousand a year in differences between the average rate of pay in these kinds of sectors. But it’s really interesting, the more men there are in an industry, you see a really linear relationship with pay. KMPG looked at it, and they found for every 10 per cent increase in the ratio of men to women in an industry, you get an average wage increase of nearly 2 per cent.

KELLY: So if the number of nurses went up from 1 in 10 male nurses to 5 in 10 male nurses, nursing wages would likely go up?

MCALLISTER: I don’t think you could be confident that it would proceed in exactly that way, but there is a trend of this kind. It is a bit of chicken-and-egg though. Why men would enter industries that were not remunerated as well as they might be in other places -

KELLY: So is that the issue, is it the remuneration, or how much has got to do with the attitudes, with gender stereotypes, if you like?

MCALLISTER: I think the two things are tied up. I think one of the reasons that we don’t pay women particularly well when they are working in these caring professions is because there is this belief that being kind and empathic and being able to care for others is just an innate skill. That it is not a skill that we need to pay for, like what we might pay for an electrician skill or joiners or carpenters skills. This is just something that is innate to women, and so that is not something that historically been valued in our wage setting process.

KELLY: So the bottom line is that we value the skills differently. What sense does it make, what does it say about our society, what sense does it make to value the work of a nurse or child care worker less highly than someone down in the mine, someone running a crane or someone working in the stock exchange?

MCALLISTER: There are some real questions of justice and fairness, because I think most people would rationally conclude that looking after children is one of the most important jobs you can do in society. So it doesn’t really seem to be just or fair that those people are paid really quite poorly. On the other hand, I think it’s worth considering that there is some economic cost to valuing these professions so poorly. We know that in the case of NDIS, investment in care will actually produce a return to the economy. But we are going to need a workforce that is going to sustain the kinds of care that we want to see in the childcare sector, the aged care sector and the disability sector. That’s going to need a reasonable way to attract quality people, and have them stay to develop their skills in those sectors.

KELLY: Is it going to take a massive shift to make this significant change? To have the cross over, or to lift the wages significantly across the board, in these professions, childcare, aged care. Two huge growth areas, of service provision and tech training, but there is a lot of workers involved, and to lift that wage is going to take a lot. What need to occur in our society to be able to make the economic shift?

MCALLISTER: I’m really interested in how the Fair Work system is responding to the problem at the moment. There is a mechanism in the Fair Work Act allows a case to be brought on undervaluation of a profession. You might remember a few years back, the community sector workers took their case before the Commission, and did receive a ruling that their work have been undervalued because of gender. At that time the federal government, the Labor government as it was at that time, elected to put quite a substantial amount of money into that sector to lift the wages in the community services sector. One of the things we’ve heard during the inquiry is that workers in those sectors talking about how significant that was for them in their career progression.

KELLY: But what does this do to the business model of the aged care providers or the hospital boards, to health costs. You know, compared to the business case of the mining companies or construction companies. 

MCALLISTER: It’s a conversation we have to have, because I don’t think anybody wants their care to be subsidised by a very low wage for somebody else. Also its very difficult to provide quality care if you don’t provide quality careers, or career pathways in those sectors.

KELLY: This senate inquiry, the reason it matters is not just that we’ve got women there, and men there. It’s about the gender pay gap, but is also about how that flows in to rest of your life, superannuation for instance.

MCALLISTER: Yes, and in fact my interest in this was piqued by the work I did on women, and retirement. As you know, women retire with just about half of superannuation of men on average. A lot of women do it really really tough in retirement. One of the main reasons for that is women are earning less over their life time than men, and the pay gap remains pretty stable for about 20 years.

KELLY: Is part of our problem when we talk about gender equality in the workplace, we normally talk about corporate scenarios, we’re talking about women on boards, women CEOs, lack of women managers. That is an issue as well, but we don’t talk much about lower paid industries, so there is all sorts of prejudice going on isn’t there? 

MCALLISTER: That is one of my major concerns in the debate we had recently around penalty rates, and the debate we had recently on the minimum wage. There is been very little discussion by the Fair Work Commission or by the government, that the impact of cuts to penalty rates or modest increase to minimum wage would have on women. Of course, women are over-represented in their dependence on minimum wage or penalty cuts.

KELLY: Speaking of dependence, does it help when the federal government’s own submission to the minimum wage review said, low paid workers quote “are often found in high income households”. Somehow suggesting paid should be determined based on the partner’s pay or parents’ pay, but not on the value of their work?

MCALLISTER: That is a completely 1950’s view of the world. If you are a man or a woman, the work you do should be valued based on your own contribution, not on the contribution of your husband. I think there are real problems in continuing to conceive of women as dependents in households.

KELLY: Senator McAllister thank you very much for joining us.