Australia: Pandemic Worsens Gender Pay Disparities

By Catherine Skrzypinski February 18, 2022
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A woman at her desk using her calculator

​The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the careers of women in Australia: Fewer have received pay raises in the past two years than their male colleagues.

Australian women make up almost half of the continent's workforce. Men make AU$261.50 (approximately US$187) more each week than women, reported the Australian government's Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).

"Women have borne the brunt of job losses arising from the pandemic and associated lockdowns," said Meraiah Foley, deputy director of the Women and Work Research Group at the University of Sydney Business School. "In 2020 and 2021, women lost more jobs and working hours than men, owing to their disproportionate concentration in some of the hardest-hit sectors, like retail and hospitality. Front-line workers in health care and education—both sectors dominated by women—have faced increased risk of contracting the virus." 

The pandemic has impacted Australia's economy, causing its first recession in nearly 30 years. In 2020, women shouldered three out of five job losses across Australia, according to a November 2021 report by Australians Investing in Women.

The gender pay gap measures the difference between the average earnings of women and men in the workforce. Australia's national gender pay gap is at 14.2 percent as of May 2021, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

"The sobering reality is that, on current trends, it will take 26 years to close the total remuneration gender pay gap," WGEA Director Mary Woolridge said in a statement.

Australian women would have had to work an extra 61 days last year to earn the same as men in 2021, the WGEA reported.

Australian Government's Role

Many employers in Australia have gender equality policies in place thanks to the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012. The legislation aimed to improve and promote equality for both women and men in the workplace.

The Australian government provides up to 18 weeks of paid parental leave to the primary carer of a newborn or adopted child, Foley noted. Women take around 98 percent of Australia's government-funded paid parental leave.

The Australian government supports women's organizations, including female entrepreneurs. The Future Female Entrepreneurs Program is available to the next generation of female Australian leaders to hone their business and leadership skills.

"The Australian government has a crucial role to play in promoting gender equality," Foley said.

Women were less likely to receive government support amid Australia's economic downturn during the pandemic, said Danielle Wood, CEO of the Grattan Institute in Melbourne. She recommended the federal government support women's jobs by making a longer-term investment in child care to encourage women's workforce participation.

"The high cost and limited availability of child care remains the biggest single barrier to women's full and equal participation in the labor market," Foley added.

Closing Australia's Gender Gap

Employers can contribute to closing the gender pay gap by regularly auditing their internal pay, making those results public and committing to action, Foley explained. Companies that want to lead in this space should also be looking at other ways in which pay disparities may be playing out, such as racial pay gaps.

Organizations can take several steps to address the gender pay gap, Foley stated: They can encourage male employees to use their parental leave and take on flexible work hours. They can provide quality career pathways for parents who elect to work part time to care for their children. Companies should also monitor their recruitment and promotion processes to ensure that gender biases are not shaping employment decisions and salary negotiations, Foley noted.

HR plays a critical role, stated Kylie Baullo, vice president of client services, Asia Pacific, at ADP in Melbourne, noting that HR should interpret data to understand where women are today in their careers. HR should then build a robust talent pipeline that supports a strategy of gender diversity across all levels of an organization.

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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