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Fair work for fair wages for women

By Jocelynne Scutt - posted Monday, 30 May 2011

It’s over forty years since the Arbitration Commission’s ‘equal pay for equal work’ decision. Yet again we face an argument about rates of pay, focusing on women’s jobs, men’s jobs, take-home rates, and whether the job warrants the pay packet, or whether the pay packet does not measure up to the job.

On one side are those contending that despite decades of activism and action through wage-fixing tribunals, industrial commissions and equal pay inquiries, women’s pay remains unequal to men’s. On the other are those asserting that female teachers earn the same pay as male teachers at the same levels, and if the figures show men earning more, this is because women don’t, or won’t, take jobs in higher-paid, often administrative categories. In nursing, if the fault is to be found, it lies in women not competing for, or wanting, to attain the role of Director of Nursing, rather than any lack of pay equity. As for the corporate world, women ‘opt out’ of higher-paid executive roles, favouring a good work-life balance, meaning they avoid being in the office until late at night, returning at six the following morning, and working at weekends in a high city tower or by taking home a bulging briefcase.

Yet another equal pay campaign is underway. Organisations such as the Australian Federation of Business and Professional Women (AFBPW) are taking a prominent role and the Australian Services Union (ASU) are running yet another case, this time before Fair Work Australia (FWA).Why is there a discrepancy between the way some view the equal pay issue? Is it a real problem or is it a problem only in the minds of women or lower-paid workers; the vast bulk of whom are women? For those taking the robust view, namely that it is a women’s choice to be paid less than their male counterparts, the struggle for equal pay is anachronistic. Alternatively, it can be seen that proponents are engaging in phantom arguments, and lower-paid workers are being led astray by advocates who should put their time and attention elsewhere.  


In 1969, those on the side of the argument asserting women were underpaid through sex/gender discrepancies hailed the Arbitration Commission’s ‘equal pay for equal work’ principle as at last bringing women’s wages into parity with men’s. Yet equal pay did not happen: only women doing ‘men’s jobs’ had any prospect of gaining wage parity. Women in traditional women’s jobs didn’t qualify for equal pay under the decision and, to avoid implementing it, employers reorganised their employees, dividing women and men into areas of work headed ‘women only’ and ‘men only’, labelling some jobs ‘female’ and others ‘male’. Absurdities were adopted, men making bigger sausages, or cases or containers of larger dimensions than any containers, cases or sausages made by women – meaning that women were not doing ‘equal work’, so could not gain equal pay. For those asserting that women could choose to earn just as much as men, there was no difficulty. Women had to move into the bigger sausages, cases and container areas to do those jobs. That employers deliberately organised their workplaces to prevent this, seems to have been missed.

In 1972, the Arbitration Commission decided the principle should move to ‘equal pay for work of equal value’. Still, equal pay remained elusive, at least insofar as equal pay lobbyists were concerned. The problem was identified in the definition of ‘work of equal value’. The predominant view remained that whatever work men traditionally did was inevitably more valuable than work women traditionally did. For those asserting there was no problem, the argument again rested on the assertion that it was women’s refusal or lack of desire to move into traditional male fields that underpinned discrepancy in pay rates. For the other side, it was that wage fixing bodies were incapable of re-measuring ‘women’s work’ to recognise its equal value with men’s. On this view, wage fixing bodies could not see or accept that the components of the work women did were capable of comparison with the components of work men did. This lack of vision meant women’s jobs could not be revalued to command pay rates equivalent to men’s.

In 1974, the Arbitration Commission extended the minimum wage to women. For years the minimum wage meant that men classed as labourers or unskilled were cushioned against being obliged to live on less than subsistence level incomes. Even if they received no margins for skill, minimum wage awards meant male workers were not expected to ‘make do’. Women, however, were. Those classed as ‘unskilled’ did not qualify for the minimum wage and were obliged to live on wages often falling below levels needed for living economically independent lives. The 1974 decision corrected this inequity. Yet no sooner did women win the minimum wage, than it was abolished. Women in unskilled jobs were again expected simply to survive. Men had their wages topped up by bonuses and other mechanisms for ensuring their pay rates were adequate to keep a wife and children – whether they were responsible financially for a family or not. Women’s family responsibilities were invisible in the wage-setting equation.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) was asked to revisit the 1969 and 1972 decisions. ‘Pay equity’ now became the demand, with notions of ‘equal remuneration’ replacing ‘equal pay’. Not only were wage rates for women and men’s work to be equalised, over award rates, bonuses, and other components of take home pay and ‘add-ons’ should be factored in. This was so that women would qualify for equal participation in over award payments, be entitled to bonuses at equal levels, and be rewarded with the equal add-ons paid to men. Yet still, women’s wages were not level with men’s. At the 1980s peak of women in fulltime paid employment, they earned some 83 cents to the male dollar. When part-time work for women and men was factored in, this fell to 69 cents.  

Few cases came before tribunals to test the 1972 decision, so few were obliged to decide whether job skills in traditional female fields could be equated with those in traditional male fields. Yet National Wage Cases in the 1980s showed that the AIRC was averse to the idea. The notion that men exercising computer skills were doing keyboard work comparable with the keyboard work done by women as secretaries and executive assistants found no traction there, just as it found no affirming response in state industrial tribunals. Nor did the idea that women working as nurses, or teachers, or in childcare or physiotherapy shouldered just as much, or more, responsibility for life, security and wellbeing of those whom they served, as did men working as traindrivers or ferrying busloads of passengers on busy roads.

This changed when in 1999-2000 the NSW Industrial Commission held a major equal pay inquiry that accepted the need to reassess women and men’s work by looking at the components of the jobs being done. In reviewing women’s and men’s work and wages in a range of fields, the NSW Commission said that wage levels should be set in accordance with a Pay Equity Principle. This confirmed that women predominating in particular jobs and fields of work did not mean these were less skilled or worth less than those where men predominate. The NSW Commission recognised that lower rates of pay prevailing in librarianship, hairdressing and physiotherapy than in engineering, plumbing or medical technology was not a confirmation of women’s (purported) lesser capacities, skills, training or fewer years of education or experience. Rather, it was associated with prejudice located in the jobs being filled mainly by women workers, and hence, bearing the label ‘women’s work’. Prejudice and stereotyping led to downgrading and underpayment of women engaged in fields traditionally dominated by women, said the Commission. This was a consequence of history that continued to influence wage fixing, so that albeit doing equally skilled, responsible and onerous jobs, women’s wages continued to be set at lower rates than men’s.


In its latest decision, equal pay advocates say that Fair Work Australia (FWA) has recognised this as the nub of the problem or, at least, that its decision on wages paid to social and community services workers employed mainly in not-for-profit organisations is a ‘milestone’ in equal pay annals. Others say the decision says nothing of a sort. Rather, FWA found that the submissions and other material put forward in support of a rise for lower-paid workers “did not present a compelling case that the pay discrepancies observed between SACS workers and similar workers in the public sector were, in fact, the result of gender differences”.

Equal pay or ‘remuneration’ orders under the Fair Work Act must be based in the principle of ‘equal remuneration for work of equal or comparable value’. A major problem, say those critical of the ASU claim, is that the comparator group of public sector workers itself comprises mainly women workers. Thus, upon what basis can it be argued that the lower pay of the claiming group is a consequence of sex/gender pay differentials and the failure fairly to value women’s work?

If equal pay cases are to succeed, there is a dire need to confront the problem head on. There must be a direct comparison between components and pay rates of ‘men’s jobs’ with the components and pay rates of ‘women’s jobs’. Wage tribunals need continuing education in making assessments that cut across sex/gender lines. As AFBPW said in its submissions to the AIRC in the 1991 National Wage Case, a Work Skills Value Enquiry (WSVE) is necessarily to be incorporated into every claim for sex/gender wage parity. ‘Work’, ‘skills’ and their value lies at the heart of the equal pay problem. Tedious though it may be to conduct a WSVE on each occasion the issue is raised, this is what must be done to resolve the question. And every time a WSVE is carried out, the FWA or state bodies doing this will become more educated as to the actual skills and work involved in women’s trades and professions. It is an ignorance of ‘what women (really) do’ that lies at the heart of the downgrading of women’s work, which results in lower (and unequal) pay. Stereotypical notions such as ‘if a woman can do it, anyone can’, or ‘it’s so easy, no wonder women do it’, linger. Regular WSVE’s would gradually eliminate the stereotypes, or at least reveal them so that they can be more easily dispelled.

Yet that is not the whole answer. Achieving equal pay requires a multi-facetted approach: recognising ‘women’s jobs’ as equal in responsibility, effort, intellect and performance as ‘men’s jobs’; overcoming the barriers preventing women from entering and participating in ‘men’s jobs’ on equal terms; adopting quotas and affirmative action programmes that work; introducing and adhering to flexible work practices that are designed to facilitate employee-participation in the workplace, rather than undercut industrial conditions; and promoting poor employment practices.

Some women do say they have no desire to manage at higher levels, to succeed as CEOs, or to take on jobs in male dominated workplaces. Yet is this a lack of ambition, or is it a recognition of the dynamics operating in those workplaces which are detrimental to health, wellbeing, family life, and equanimity of the soul? It is not only women who voice concerns about these structures and practices. Claims of bullying and abuse, unpaid overtime, requirements for commitments to the job that far outweigh the pay packet and which defy industrial regulations, emanate from male workers just as often as from women, or perhaps more so. These pressures may, however, have differential outcomes for women and men. The men hang on, complying with the rules of the game. The women leave. Ultimately, the workplace is bad for both. Change would benefit both, just as rises in wages of traditional women’s work would benefit women and men. The women in those jobs would gain wage rises, the men who might favour those jobs but are deterred by the low pay rates would be encouraged to enter. This will free space for women in the jobs now labelled ‘for men only’, where cultural practices, including bullying and failure to value women’s skills, deter women from entering or remaining. 

Equal pay cases must be run in wage tribunals. Wage tribunals must conduct WSVE’s when assessing the import of equal pay submissions. At the same time, bullying in the workplace, sexual harassment, the need for regular training in equal opportunity, non-harassment and affirmative action planning are factors all workplaces need to address, along with equal pay initiatives, if women’s remuneration is to equal men’s – in other words, if fair work is to result in fair wages for women.

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About the Author

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney. Her web site is here. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Jocelynne Scutt

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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