Gender segregation causing inadequate remuneration for our sector
(Note: in this article, we will primarily refer to men and women, or male and female, as this is how most available data is presented. We acknowledge the difference between sex and gender and the unique impacts of gender discrimination on non-binary people. We hope that future data collection increases inclusion in this regard.)
Yesterday was International Women’s Day. The 2023 UN theme was Cracking the Code: Innovation for a gender equal future, focusing on creating new social, economic and cultural codes to help accelerate gender equality.
Within the community-managed mental health sector, one impact of gender inequality is on remuneration and employment conditions. It is generally acknowledged that the not-for-profit sector pays less than the private or public sector. We enter the sector for love, not money!
These low pay rates in the social and community services sector were recognised by the Fair Work Australia and attempts made to rectify it through an equal remuneration order in 2012 (the first such order in Australia). However, a decade later, workers in our sector are still paid lower wages than they deserve.
Why is this happening? One major cause is the link between high rates of women in the workforce and low wages. To explore that, we need to look at the broader Australian employment context regarding gender, remuneration and employment status.
Gender pay gap
The gender pay gap is the difference between the average pay of women and men across the workforce. This is different to equal pay, which is the legal requirement that men and women are paid the same for doing the same job.
Australia’s gender pay gap in 2022 was 22.8% 1—the same as in 2021. This means that, for every $10 earned by men, women earned $7.72 on average.
Every single industry in Australia has a gender pay gap in favour of men, even those that are female-dominated. In November 2022, the Health Care and Social Assistance industry had a gender pay gap of 13.4%—below the national average but still far too high. And although it decreased slightly from 2021, it was still higher than the 2016 gap of 12.3%.
But what causes the gender pay gap? There are many complex and intersecting issues, but the top three drivers are:
- gender-based discrimination
- care, family and workforce participation
- type of job.
Gender segregation in Australian industries
The Australian workforce remains stubbornly gendered, with women concentrated in lower-paying jobs in service industries and the community and care sectors. The reasons behind this are driven by many economic, social and historical factors.
Although occupational gender segregation has declined since the 1960s, it has been largely static since 1998 and it remains high for many industries:
- Mining: 80% men
- Health Care and Social Assistance: 79% women (up from 77.2% in 1998)
- Public Administration and Safety: 76% men
- Construction: 76% men
- Transport, Postal and Warehousing: 75% men
- Electricity, Gas, Water and Waste Services: 74% men
- Education and Training: 65% women.
In 2020, gender segregation in the type of job accounted for 24 per cent of the gender pay gap, with industries dominated by women often facing a wage penalty. Some sectors have even experienced a steady decline in relative average earnings as the industry has become more female-dominated.
In May 2021, average weekly total cash earnings in health care and social assistance (Australia’s largest-employing industry and the most female-dominated) were less than half that of the average in mining (the most male-dominated sector).
One of the leading theories for why this is happening is that co-called ‘women’s work’ (such as caring and nurturing) is undervalued in our society.
Another influencer of the gender pay gap is differences in full-time employment rates. Only 42% of women work full-time, compared to 67% of men. Historically, unpaid care has been undertaken mostly by women, and this has correlated with women’s underrepresentation in full-time work. And when you look at the data based on whether the industry is highly gender-segregated, the pattern becomes obvious:
What this means for our sector
Underfunding community-managed mental health services means less pay for a lot of women, both in the sector and across the labour force.
Community-managed mental health services across Canberra—and Australia—are experiencing intense and unsustainable pressures from increasing demand, complexity in people’s mental health needs, and chronic under-resourcing and understaffing.
Mental health services are struggling to recruit, train and retain staff with the necessary skills and experience. As a result, workforce growth is not keeping up with the demands on services, and our staff are experiencing high rates of burnout and low morale. And for every job that isn’t filled or adequately funded, it is largely women who are picking up the slack with free unpaid care for family and loved ones.
We need immediate and significant change so the workforce issues plaguing our sector don’t continue to deteriorate.
One part of this change would be appropriately remunerating sector workers for their essential work in our communities. Their vital contributions and the high personal demands of their roles should be reflected by significantly higher pay. But for that to happen, governments need to fund the sector appropriately, so higher pay doesn’t mean reduced services for those in need.
For International Women’s Day, and every day, we must remember that there are clear actions towards a more gender-equal future. Appropriately remunerating community-managed mental health sector workers, and closing the gender pay gap more broadly, are critical steps in that process.
1. There are two ways of calculating the gender pay gap. This article uses the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s annual Employer Census data figure.
#ThursdayThoughts is our series of in-depth articles on topics relevant to the ACT mental health sector. They are generally released every four weeks.