A lack of intersectional data hides the real gender pay gap


As we mark Equal Pay Day today, we must not forget that the gender pay gap is likely much higher than reported, writes Sarah Hill of YWCA Australia.

28 August is Equal Pay Day in Australia, marking the additional 59 days women must work from the end of the last financial year to earn the same amount as men.

There are lots of everyday factors that contribute to the gender pay gap including discriminatory pay decisions, gender-segregated industries, female-dominated industries attracting lower pay and women’s high rates of unpaid labour.

The latest figures from the Finance Women’s Index show the devastating economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s employment levels, rates of unpaid labour and superannuation levels. This only reinforces what we all instinctively knew – progress for women has gone backwards in 2020.  This latest report predicts it will now take 36 years to reach financial equality, and 26 years to resolve the gender pay gap. But resolve the gender pay gap for who exactly?

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) has been responsible for collecting industry data and tracking the gender pay gap in Australia since 2012. It does this by measuring the difference between men and women’s adult weekly ordinary time earnings (AWOTE). That is income from working full-time. By this measurement, the gender pay gap in Australia is approximately 14 per cent.

What this measurement fails to capture is the overrepresentation of women in part-time work. Women make up just 37 per cent of full-time workers but 69 per cent of part-time workers. When we compare the income of all workers using the adult weekly earnings (AWE), the gender pay gap increases to a whopping 32 per cent. This significant wage gap means that across their lifetimes, women are less financially secure and less financially independent than men. Women are more likely to work part-time for a range of reasons, but a key driving force is undoubtedly society’s gender-based biases that play out in expectations of unpaid labour and caring responsibilities.

This isn’t the only crucial gap in our national data. Importantly, WGEA reporting only includes data from employers with more than 100 employees. These are called ‘relevant employers’ and makeup only one-third of workplaces in Australia.  However, the data completely ignores the disproportionate amount of women who are employed in small and medium businesses. It also ignores the emergence of the gig economy as a frequent ‘employer’ of women. This data collection approach means that women outside of the corporate world and privileged class are largely discounted.  

Perhaps the most crucial gap in our gender pay gap analysis is the failure to apply an intersectional lens when disaggregating the data. An intersectional approach would allow us to understand how gender overlaps with other identities to impact the way oppression and discrimination are experienced. People’s experiences of gender-based discrimination are compounded by their intersecting identities such as race, sexuality and disability. Understanding diverse identities and how they impact women’s experience of employment, economic security and leadership is crucial to understanding the real gender pay gap for all women in Australia.

Racism manifests itself in the workplace in a multitude of ways and can negatively impact the workforce participation level and earnings of women of colour – for example through discriminatory hiring practices, microaggressions in the workplace and non-inclusive workplace cultures. We know that women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are over-represented in low paid and insecure work, and that migrant women are 7 per cent less likely to be employed than those born in Australia. However, because of a chronic data gap we can only really understand the tip of this iceberg.

The She’s Priceless Report looks at data from the USA and shows exactly how intersecting identities can significantly impact a person’s experience of the gender pay gap. It showed that in 2018 the gender pay gap for white women (when compared to a white man) was 20 per cent. However, because of the availability of disaggregated data, the same report could demonstrate that the gender pay gap for black women was significantly higher at 35 per cent and 38 per cent for Hispanic women.

We can assume a similar disparity exists for women of colour in Australia as well as LGBTIQA+ women and women with disabilities – but we don’t have the data to prove it.

WGEA isn’t the only agency not to disaggregate their data. The global agencies responsible for gender equality measurement and reporting share a similar gap in their data collection. The UN Gender Development Index, the UN Gender Inequality Index, the Sustainable Development Goals Index and the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index all fail to disaggregate their data, and in doing so cannot account for the experiences of all women.

We need more intersectional and accurate data. The Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 needs to be broadened so we can better understand the lived experiences of women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, migrant and refugee women, women with disabilities and LGBTIQA+ women and non-binary people. Importantly, the Act should also reflect the changing definitions of workplaces and work, and include part-time, casual, and gig economy work within smaller or informal workplaces.

Having this data will allow us to better understand the ways in which women in all their diversity experience employment disadvantage and wage discrimination. When we understand the nuanced lived experiences of all people, we can develop adequate strategies to address these issues and shape better outcomes.

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