Equal Pay Shouldn't Be Such A Drag


In the lead up to International Women’s Day, the women’s network Economic Security for Women tried something new: a funny advertisement. As we all know, feminists aren’t supposed to have a sense of humour and the gender pay gap is nothing to laugh about. A "man-over" kit is pitched to young women with the question, "Are you ready to earn what you’re really worth?" Donning a fake moustache works wonders for the women in the ad: "That’s right, Amanda, now I’m just one of the boys. And it’s all thanks to this little guy!" (If you haven’t seen the ad you can watch it here.)

The parody is interrupted by a voiceover: "Stop, is this really necessary? Equal pay is just commonsense."

Young women are often accused of dropping the ball on feminism, and plenty of young women disavow feminism on the grounds that they’ve got all the choices they need. Not all the choices that Gen Y women make are enthusiastically received by older feminists. And when you’re being scolded for vajazzling, feminism can sound very serious indeed.

So how do you get young women to think about boring issues like pay equality?

Fake moustaches, of course. For anyone who hasn’t been to an under-30s party recently, these babies are big. Over the top man-drag is so hot right now. The ladies love them. So to turn this cultural phenomenon into a serious message about gender inequality is clever.

But will it work? Beyond jokes about "man-overs" lie complex issues of entrenched inequality. We can crunch the numbers on equal pay — and when we do, we find that women get paid less than men, however you slice it. But such measures don’t reflect the complexity of the choices that Australian women have to make around work and families. And these choices aren’t always as available as those who would argue that we’re living in equal times would have you believe.

Today is the centenary of International Womens’ Day, an opportunity to celebrate the many steps that have been taken toward gender equality around the world. It’s a global event and an opportunity too to reflect on how the fight for womens’ rights changes depending on where you come from, on how much you earn, on who you love. When we’re talking about the limits to the choices Australian women can make, we are talking about first world problems.

A hundred years ago women were campaigning for equal pay for equal work. What this meant then was getting paid the same rate per hour as men did for the same work. In 1911 in Australia, women had the vote but they weren’t being paid at the same rate as men and there were no female representatives in state or federal parliament. It was only in 1969 that the idea of equal pay really caught on in Australia. That’s when female rates of pay (that is, lower rates of pay) were abolished for the same job. Pay parity — at least on the books — was eventually achieved in 1972.

But the gender pay gap currently stands at 18 per cent — and it’s worsening.

Why is this so? The very concept of equal pay in 2011 might require some calibration. One of the challenges to formulating arguments around equal pay for equal work is that the participation of so many women in the workforce differs from that of men. Why is that? Because women bear children and perform the bulk of care duties in families. Women and men don’t always do the same work.

FAHCSIA commissioned research on the gender pay gap which was published in 2009. The study found there were many drivers to the gender pay gap, including children. No surprises — tiny feet don’t just pitter patter, they trample wages. Women with children participate less in the labour market than women without children or men. Women with children earn less over their lifetimes.

There’s no need to tell older women that this problem exists. Anyone with children or considering having a family has struggled with the conflict between having kids and a working life. Women ask themselves not only questions such as, "do I want to put my career on hold to have kids?", but also, "can I afford to have children?" Framing the decisions that women make around work and having children as a simple and selfish desire to have it all is missing the point: it’s about economic security.

And what’s wrong with having it all anyway? Men with children don’t make the same career sacrifices as women: by and large, they stay at work. Given our great prosperity, why can’t we offer young women like those targeted in the "man-over" ad the prospect of real choice in the workforce? Paid maternity leave will make it easier for many women to take time off to have kids. If women need more help to stay in the workforce once they’ve had them, they should be given it.

We need to keep campaigning for equal pay, and if obvious parody is what it takes to convince a new generation of women to start asking for real equality around work and family, then we’re right behind it.

Happy International Women’s Day!


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