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John Passant

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November 2009
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Why do women earn less than men?

Men earn on average $66,690 a year. Women earn $11,000 a year less.

This is a 17 percent difference. Why?

A recent Parliamentary report called Making It Fair suggested some reasons.

Over a lifetime women take time off to have and look after kids.

They predominate in low paid industries like nursing and retail.

More women work part time than men, again partly because of family responsibilities and partly because of the pay disparity. Far better to lose some of the less well paid worker’s salary than that of the better paid wage earner’s.

Women are also over-represented in the lower paid sections of the workforce and under-represented in the higher paid echelons of the workforce.

Thus for example over 50 percent of law students are women yet they make up less than ten percent of partners in law firms. 

Almost 60 percent of the lower paid workforce in the public service are women. Women make up not much more than a third of the senior levels.

These sorts of imbalances are systemic.  Women’s lower status in terms of pay and work responsibilities is an integral part of capitalism. It flows from the very way the system is organised.

Capital needs its next generation of workers.  It gets them on the cheap through the family unit, a unit in which women both bear and then raise (as a generalisation) the kids and do the house work.

This means a number of things.  Ideologically the capitalist state and  the media portray the family as the bedrock of society, which is part of the reason Rudd Labor is about to overturn the ACT’s civil unions laws passed a week ago.

When capitalists talk about bedrocks or foundations or building blocks of society they mean of course of capitalist society and the process of exploitation in which we create profits for the bosses and they steal them from us.

The family unit and the oppression of women that flows from it is a cheap way for capital to raise its next generation of workers.  It is overwhelmingly women workers who bear that cost.

The report said Australian society did not truly value traditional women’s work, paid or unpaid. 

This can lead to reactionary conclusions about women’s choice to work or care, and being paid for home duties.  Such suggestions reinforce the role of women as homemakers and carers and trap them in unproductive work.

Cooperative work is what makes us human. It fulfils us (at the same time as under capitalism it alienates us). 

The women’s liberation movement didn’t fight for women to become home bodies; it fought for real liberation, the first step of which was for women to enter the workforce as equals with men.

43 years ago  some communist party women chained themselves to a rail outside the arbitration commission as part of the fight for equal wages for women. What the figures from the Making It Fair report show is that formal equality is not the same as real equality.

The gender pay gap has been widening since 1992. This is an indictment of the leadership of the trade union movement and shows why unions in particular are unattractive to women.

Yet when unions with a majority female workforce do strike for better wages and conditions (eg nurses and teachers) women queue up to join because at last the union is doing something to improve their economic value and with it their sense of worth and work pride.

A concerted strike movement from major unions to improve the abysmal pay of groups like teachers, nurses and lower paid public servants would go some way to redressing the pay gap. 

Of course a society which abolished hierarchy would also do that.

The report recommends bureaucratic manoeuvring like beefing up Fair Work Australia to enforce, educate and research on pay equity. There would be some reporting requirements and eventually penalties.

Manoeuvring doesn’t win real gains, action does. 

What about paid maternity leave?  The ACTU cut a deal with Rudd labour to pay the minimum wage for 18 weeks. 

The scheme is so bad that a stay at home mum will receive $10,000 in Government benefits while a woman on the Government scheme will receive $9792 before tax.

The cost of this pathetic scheme, which doesn’t start till January 2011, is only $260 million. By contrast the Government found $52 billion (most of which has gone into the bosses’ pockets) for a stimulus package and is giving up to $20 billion of our money to the big polluters under its emissions trading scheme. 

A fully paid scheme for 24 months (for both partners) is perfectly affordable. The bosses have billions. Impose the cost on them.

Most people who work part-time want to work more hours. Cut the working week to 30 hours on full pay would partly address this issue.

As to the burden of housework, communal eateries and free household cleaning services would in part address that.

Free child care would help women back into the workforce.

None of this is particularly outlandish. Other developed Western countries recognise the value women give to society and have paid maternity leave, free child care and the like.

The missing element is both a trade union movement serious about an industrial campaign for equal pay, and a women’s liberation movement putting liberation back into the movement.

As the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation said many years ago: ‘If you don’t fight, you lose.’

Let’s organise in our workplaces for real equality for men and women.



Comment from Maxwell Pinto
Time November 25, 2009 at 3:10 am

One reason why women earn less than men is the existence of the (reinforced) “glass ceiling.” Hopefully this “ceiling” will be shattered by ethical leaders, assuming that the term “ethical leadership” is not an oxymoron.

If anyone wants free abridged versions of my books on leadership, ethics, teamwork, motivation, women, sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace, trade unions, Japanese management, etc., please send an e-mail request to

Maxwell Pinto, Business Author