Speech on the Gender Pay Gap

11.40am | March 19, 2018


The gender pay gap is a multifaceted problem. It arises from a complex mix of cultural and economic factors, which range from gender segregation in the workplace through the availability of flexible working conditions to outright discrimination. Closing the gender pay gap will require a coordinated effort across our social, taxation and workplace relations policies. Eliminating it may take a generation.

Given this, it is entirely predictable that the Greens would draft a bill that contains only two substantive sections and gives us the grandiosely ambitious name Fair Work Amendment (Gender Pay Gap) Bill—the bill does not deserve this title. Labor is inclined to support it—we believe that pay secrecy is an obstacle to pay equity—but we have substantive concerns about the bill.

The bill only addresses one small aspect of the gender pay gap and its significant drafting flaws mean that it doesn't even address that aspect effectively. Labor has been considering this idea for some time and we believe a strengthened version, with the drafting problems removed, may have some merit as part of a suite of other measures. But this is the point: the Greens don't have a coherent, well-developed set of measures to properly address the gender pay gap, and yet that is what this bill purports to do. This bill is what happens when you draft policies on the basis of what they'll look like on a Facebook post rather than how they'll impact on the people who depend on you. We on the Labor side know that as a sole measure it simply does not go far enough in dealing with the disparities in wages between working men and working women in Australia today.

The bill has flaws which ought to have been addressed: there's been plenty of time, and the fact that they haven't been reveals the Greens' lack of real commitment to this issue. One wonders what they have been doing since the Senate committee reported. This bill has remained unchanged since it was first introduced in September 2015, during the 44th Parliament. Following its introduction in 2015 this bill was referred to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee, which handed down its report in 2016, during the last parliament. The committee heard from a number of submitters—impressive evidence, actually—including many legal experts who identified obvious and also some unintentional flaws with the way the bill was drafted. The Labor senators' dissenting report pointed out that these concerns should be addressed. The Greens' report indicated that these concerns should be addressed but, disappointingly, they remain in the bill as we re-examine it today.

I say it's disappointing, but it is also predictable that the Greens have not addressed any of the concerns raised by submitters or by the opposition through amendments before asking the Senate to consider it once again. I acknowledge that Senator Rice said she was willing to consider amendments, but that is not good enough. Actual reform by a party that aspires to form government requires actually doing the work, not just relying on a more serious operation to deliver that for you.

I'll go through some of the problems. We note that the bill does not prevent pay secrecy practices; it merely prevents the operation of pay secrecy clauses in contracts or awards. Accordingly, it offers no protection for workers who are directed to keep their pay confidential by their employer or any workers whose company policies or procedures require them to keep their pay confidential. This means that should this legislation pass unamended, workers might end up incorrectly assuming they are free to disclose their pay without consequence when in fact they could face significant consequences for doing so. The Law Council, in its submission to the inquiry into the bill, also considered that the bill did not create a workplace right and that therefore it does not offer protection under the Fair Work Act 2009 if the employer were to take adverse action against an employee for revealing their pay. Again, as drafted, this bill won't fully protect workers who disclose their pay. Professor Andrew Stewart, a specialist lawyer in workplace relations and academic at the University of Adelaide, also observed a clear limitation of the bill in relation to coverage. He said:

… it seems to me that the bill has a number of potential flaws in some respects—seeking to go too far and in other respects not going far enough.

He went on to say that the flaws in the drafting of the bill meant:

It does not, as the explanatory memorandum claims, in my view, 'make sure that workers are allowed to tell their colleagues what they are paid if they wish to without fear of retaliation'.

In her submission to the committee, Professor Marian Baird, a gender employment relations specialist, and her colleague, Ms Alexandra Heron, suggested that the bill be amended to ban pay secrecy clauses to make the intention clear. Further, they recommended that the bill should be amended to ensure that the Fair Work Information Statement informs employees about pay transparency at the beginning of their engagement in a job. The ACTU also made this suggestion during their appearance before the committee, stressing the importance of making workers aware of their rights to disclose information about pay. Despite all this, the Greens have made no attempt to amend this bill as a result of the Senate inquiry which reported in November 2016, nor have they made any attempt to discuss this bill with the opposition to discuss how we might set about remedying these deficiencies. This is not how you behave if you are serious about addressing an issue, but the scope of the bill alone shows us that the Greens are more concerned about being seen to be acting than they are about actually making a difference. Addressing pay secrecy is important, but without any other policies it will barely make a dent in the pay gap. In this, as in so many other policy areas, the Greens have shown themselves to be disinterested in doing the detailed and unheralded work that accompanies all meaningful reform. It's not, of course, the only example, and it's not the only example as it relates to women.

I want to talk for a moment about the annual wage review that is currently being undertaken by the Fair Work Commission. For the second year in a row, the government's submission to the review has claimed that lifting the minimum wage would not have any impact on the gender pay gap, because they claim that most of the gender pay gap exists between high-income earners. This is wrong—this is not the advice provided by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency—and I want to talk through why it's wrong. The pay gap is not just about a man and a woman sitting side by side doing the same job for different pay, although that happens. Research shows that much of the pay gap actually arises from structural discrimination that operates across whole industries and occupations. That's more subtle than straight-out discrimination against individual women.

Australian workplaces are highly gender segregated. Men and women tend to be clustered in different jobs in different sectors. The problem is that the more women there are in a type of occupation or sector, the more likely it is that that sector is poorly paid when compared to male-dominated occupations or sectors. What it means in practice is that workers with very similar experience and workers with very similar levels of education are paid different amounts depending on whether they work in a male- or a female-dominated field. We're talking about a certificate III being worth more if you work as a mechanic than it is if you work in child care. We're talking about the maintenance department staff being paid more than the cafeteria staff.

Those on the other side would probably say that these different kinds of labour are just valued differently in the market. It might be that some colleagues on the crossbench and some colleagues in the Greens seats would say the same thing. They'd say that this is just a case of the market at work, but this is actually a case of the market not working. As a society, we have consistently undervalued women's work. Pay is particularly bad in roles that mirror the work that women have traditionally done at home, such as care work. We are pretty terrible at recognising the value of that work when it is done by family members. We have not been much better at recognising it when it's being done by female professionals. It's not an answer to just say, 'Oh well, men and women choose different career paths.' There's a complex set of factors that push both men and women into gender-typical careers. Individual choice is not a remedy to this, and many women have no choice. Some female-dominated fields are female dominant because they are the only place that offers truly flexible roles where women can combine their caring obligations with professional work.

In the long run it may not even matter what field women choose. Research shows that pay drops once women begin to take over a male-dominated field. A landmark US study examined over half a century of data, and they found that wages fell for everyone, from ticket sellers to designers, as their field became more feminised. If women changing careers isn't the answer, what is?

This is where the Fair Work Commission's annual wage review comes in. In Labor's submission to the 2018 Fair Work Commission annual wage review, we reinforced that a significant contributing factor to the size of the gender pay gap is the fact that women are more likely to be employed in low-paid industries and jobs and that they're more likely than their male counterparts to be reliant on award wages. We called on the commission to give weight to equal remuneration and closing the gender pay gap in the annual wage review. What did the Greens' submission say? Nothing. They didn't bother to make one. Now, I don't know whether that's because the Greens don't have the capacity for detailed, low-profile policy work or whether it is because they simply don't think it's important. But it is important. It's very important, and the commissioner's decision will make a difference to millions of Australian workers and many, many women. Policy change requires more than a self-congratulatory social media post.

In contrast, Labor is committed to a suite of reforms to address the gender pay gap, and we have a track record of making meaningful change from the government benches. Employers now measure and report their progress on gender equality over time under Labor's Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. We delivered national paid parental leave so that families don't have to make the difficult choice between time with a new baby and covering all the bills. Labor delivered affordable, flexible and high-quality child care so that working parents have a real choice and better care for their children. And we locked in more protection for women and men against discrimination and sexual harassment through amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act.

When we come back to government we'll return with a bold agenda. We know that we need a strong and comprehensive plan for gender equality to address the persistent and shameful gender pay gap in Australia today. On 7 March this year we launched a national strategy for gender equality and highlighted our commitment to make gender equality a central priority for a future Labor government. Only our comprehensive strategy, not a piecemeal strategy, will achieve gender equality in our workplaces. So far we have committed to tangible reforms and targets to achieve this in both the public and the private sector.

I'll take you through some of it. It's a very long list. We will take measurable action to close the gender pay gap and we will report annually to parliament on our progress. We will reduce the gap in women's workforce participation by 25 per cent by 2025. We will raise representation of women on government boards to 50 per cent within the first term of government. We will boost the representation of women in chair and deputy chair positions on government boards to 40 per cent by 2025. We will set a stretch target of 50 per cent representation of women in senior Public Service roles by 2025. To ensure that women's voices are heard by government, we will boost funding to the six national women's alliances, which represent over 180 women's organisations. They'll take the lead in bringing forward the views, voices and issues of Australian women, in particular women from marginalised and disadvantaged groups. We'll provide $15.2 million to the Australian Bureau of Statistics to conduct the time use survey in 2020 and again in 2027. And then we'll have the evidence base to help us better understand how government policies impact women.

We will take action to protect university students from sexual harassment and sexual assault. We'll set up frameworks for gender-responsive policy and decision-making, including introducing gender impact statements on cabinet submissions and new policy proposals. We'll bring back the women's budget statement and we will convene a ministerial council of gender equality. We'll restore the penalty rates, cuts to which have disproportionately impacted women on low incomes. We will put 10 days of paid domestic violence leave into the National Employment Standards. We will make sure that procurement rules are implemented effectively to ensure that all companies that are awarded government contracts meet the Workplace Gender Equality Agency's requirements. We will work with the Australian Public Service Commission and the CPSU to promote more flexible working arrangements for both men and women in the Australian Public Service. And we are committed to an industrial relations system that can address the gendered undervaluation of work and to improve the wages of low-paid women. This is what a commitment to economic justice for women actually looks like.

The government have been asleep at the wheel on this issue. They have been hopeless. But we expect that from them. They have very little interest in gender equality. Take a look at the composition of the coalition party room. Take a look at the composition of the coalition front bench. This government cannot point to a single thing that they have done to improve pay for low-income women. They cannot point to a single thing they have done to reduce the gender pay gap or to make society more equal or more fair, because they do not believe in it. We expect this from a conservative government.

But it is disappointing that the Greens aren't prepared to do more either. It is not enough to be progressive on Twitter. You do not solve the gender pay gap by just putting the phrase in the title of the bill. Change takes commitment, and it takes hard, and often low-profile, work. And I would like to invite the Greens to join us in displaying either.