We Are Shortchanging Young Women


In early January, during the slow news days when most people are still recovering from their New Year’s festivities, a press release about the gender pay gap did the rounds. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), in 2012 the gender pay gap for graduates leapt from $2000 to $5000. Using data provided by Graduate Careers Australia (GCA), WGEA reported a stunning 9.1 per cent gap between the median starting salaries male and female graduates could expect.

The story was picked up and the Prime Minister contacted for comment — but what with the heat and the fires and the cricket, it’s worth revisiting the WGEA graduate statistics report and its scandalous findings.

The WGEA broke down the GCA data across faculties and professions. Whereas humanities, medicine and education graduates enjoyed equal starting salaries, male law, dentistry, architecture and optometry graduates earned considerably more than their female counterparts. Men didn’t outearn women in every field — out of 23 occupations, there were seven where women graduates earned more than men. In these professions, however, the pay gap was much smaller than that in those fields where men out earned women. You can read the breakdown in the fact-sheet here.

Graduate Careers Australia has expressed some reservations about these findings, noting, for example, that no provision is made for high-paying professions such as engineering, where male graduates are over-represented, that may skew the data. They described WGEA’s interpretation of their data as "simplistic". Others took the report more seriously, such as Anne Summers, who described the data as a "huge wake up call".

When the WGEA report was released, Julia Gillard told the ABC that she was "concerned" and that she was going to "need to drill down to the very specific statistics".

Let’s take Gillard’s cue and unpack a few more statistics about gender, education and work.

Young Australian women are more likely that men to have finished Year 12. In 2010 73 per cent of men aged 20-24 had finished high school and 83 per cent of women.

Young women continue to dominate school leavers results. Concerns are expressed perenially about the fate of boys in the school system. Females were 66 per cent of the top performers in the 2011 NSW HSC, prompting Miranda Devine to ask "what has gone wrong with our boys?" A story about girls "outclassing" boys in high school mathematics appeared in the West Australian earlier this week. A rash of such articles typically appear when Year 12 results are released.

Girls may outperform boys at school but they are quickly left behind when they enter the workplace. ABS statistics show that women hold 54.7 per cent of Australian bachelor degrees, whereas 52.8 per cent of postgraduate degrees are held by men. Incidentally, the WGEA reported that the gap between starting salaries narrows as postgraduate qualifications are obtained — shrinking to 2.7 per cent for people who had completed Masters degrees by research or PhDs.

In sum, more girls finish school and they get better results when they do. More women obtain undergraduate degrees. And when they graduate, they can expect to earn significantly less than their male counterparts from the get go — with the reasonable expectation that the gap will widen as they get older.

This isn’t the whole story, of course. Across the workforce, the gender pay gap is much wider than it is for recent graduates. According to the ABS, in May 2012 Australian men earned on average 17.5 per cent more per week than Australian women. These figures compare the weekly earnings of people in full-time work. The gender pay gap is largest in WA (25.3 per cent) and lowest in Tassie (11.8 per cent).

In the private sector, men are paid 20.8 per cent more than women; in the public sector it’s 13.2 per cent more. For a more detailed breakdown by industry, download the WGEA fact-sheet here. Sure, it’s possible to quibble about the big bucks blokes can make in mining in WA, and about how family responsibilities change the picture for women — but the yawning gulf between what men earn and what women earn remains.

Summers, in her article on the gender pay gap her response to the WGEA findings,  puts it bluntly:

"There is barely an occupation, a job, a sector or an age group where women do not earn less, often hugely less, than men … the overall earnings outlook for Australian women is outrageously unequal."

Recent graduates are hardly the most vulnerable members of the workforce. As Veronica Sheen wrote last year in The Conversation, "there is very great divergence between women in better quality, secure jobs and the mass of women in lower level, insecure, and onerous jobs". A nuanced understanding of gender equity in the workplace requires us to consider questions of access, job security, flexibility and sustainability as well as renumeration. And gender is not the only driver here. The big picture of work and educational attainments and salary is complicated by where you live, whether you live with a disability, whether or not you are Indigenous, English language skills and so on.

It’s also important to note that the Gillard Government took steps in the direction of pay equity via the equal pay provisions of the 2009 Fair Work legislation. There are areas where workplace gender equity has undoubtedly improved and the gains made via the ASU case which guaranteed equal pay for social and community sector workers are worth celebrating.

But the question remains: if the principle of equal pay for equal work does not apply to recent university graduates, to whom will it apply? What we’re talking about here are starting salaries. We can assume that male and female graduates enter the workforce with roughly equivalent qualifications — and inexperience. Young female graduates entering the workforce have not, as a rule, been forced to confront the difficult questions around work and parenting which thwart easy comparisons of the working lives of men and women. This is a close to the level playing field as we’re going to get. Right now, it’s tilted to disadvantage young women.

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