Amid the ongoing controversies about discrimination against same-sex couples wanting to marry and the operation of the racial discrimination act, it is astounding that a grievous form of discrimination against the majority of Australians is being allowed to persist without remedy. That’s right, you don’t need to be in a minority to endure discrimination, you just need to be a woman. In this day and age, it should be unacceptable that women’s retirement incomes on average are at least 20 per cent beneath those of men.
Two further inequities are responsible for this scandalous discrepancy. First, despite the first equal pay case being brought down more than four decades ago, it hasn’t happened and it doesn’t look like happening any time soon. In reporting on gender pay inequity, the federal government’s Fair Work Ombudsman’s website quotes somewhat dated research estimating the average weekly earnings for full-time workers were around 17 per cent lower for women than for men. The latest available statistics suggest this pay gap could be closer to 19 per cent. The Ombudsman concludes that: “The undervaluation of women’s work is still embedded in many workplaces.”
As a modern society, we rightly condemn the colonial-era practice of paying Indigenous Australians meagre wages compared with those of white people. Yet in so many occupations we acquiesce to women receiving less pay for work that is of equal value to the employer as that of men.
One pretext for this blatant form of discrimination is that women have an annoying tendency to take time off work to have babies, which is disruptive for employers wanting a stable workforce. Since it takes two to tango, presumably men benefit equally from their partners having babies and value fatherhood as much as women value motherhood. Why should women be penalised for having babies in the form of lower wage rates when both partners can be presumed to benefit equally?
The second inequity is that women’s very absence from the paid workforce while having and raising children causes their superannuation incomes to be lower on average than those of men. Why isn’t the unpaid child-rearing work of women of equal value to both parents? If it is, then women should not be penalised through lesser superannuation savings for being absent from the workforce while raising children.
Remedying the problem of unequal pay for work of equal value should be a government policy priority, especially in the context of the weakest overall wages growth on record. Removing the gender pay gap by increasing women’s pay rates could contribute to overall consumer demand, providing a welcome boost to the economy.
Of course, employers would argue that any such wage rises for women would add to their costs, reducing the attractiveness of employing women. But that is the same argument that has been used to deny women equal pay for equal work since the time of European settlement.
As for women on average working fewer years than men owing to child-rearing responsibilities, one radical policy response might be to apply the superannuation guarantee to government payments to women. An amount equal to 9.5 per cent of government paid parental leave could be deducted and paid into women’s superannuation accounts. Similarly, 9.5 per cent of family tax benefits and parenting payment could be so deducted and paid.
A valid objection to this proposal is that women need every cent of those payments now, not upon retirement. But the alternative of the federal government topping up all payments by 9.5 per cent and channelling the top-up into superannuation accounts would be prohibitively costly in circumstances where the budget remains in deep deficit.
Perhaps some phasing over time of a proportion of future increases in income support payments going into superannuation accounts might be more viable. Other bring ideas are most welcome.
Whatever the right policy response, the do-nothing approach would leave women short of retirement incomes compared with men, perpetuating a discriminatory injustice that for far too long has been allowed to persist.