The gender pay gap and political discourse

December 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

Equal pay has been in the news of late. In this post I articulate the three main political discourses used to explain pay in/equity in an Australian policy context (policy, media and debate): undervaluation, family responsibility and choice. I also give a brief analysis of the policy and industrial context.


The main frame that feminists use for talking about equal pay or pay in/equity is ‘undervaluation’. This term refers to a broader set of ideas, and is used to talk about why female-dominated industries are often paid less than male dominated industries, and also why women doing the same job as men are likely to be paid at a lower rate.

The ideas that ‘undervaluation’ encompasses include: historical undervaluation of female-dominated work; occupational segregation; and discrimination (a separate concept but they are often conflated).

Historical undervaluation – Australia has a history of placing lower value on ‘women’s work’, from the time of the Harvester Judgment in 1907 by Justice Henry Higgins. Women’s work was valued at 54 per cent. This was based on the assumption that men were supporting a family. Women, on this logic, were either married or single without children and hence needed less money to get by.

Leaping forward in time, there are plenty of professions that continue to be paid less due to their history as ‘women’s work’ – hence occupational ‘segregation’. Several recent cases in the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission (QIRC), including that of Dental Assistants and Community Workers, have granted wage increases on this basis.

Feminists, the trade union movement, state Labor governments, some Federal Government departments such as the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) and the Department of Families Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) (which includes the Office for Women), and statutory bodies such as the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWWA) and the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), typically use this framing of pay in/equity.

The ‘undervaluation’ analysis goes to the heart of the problem of ‘market’ values, arguing that a male dominated labour market doesn’t value feminised labour appropriately. Importantly, there is often an intersection of race and gender inequity here. For example there have been significant increases in Non-English Speaking Background (NESB) migrant women working in aged care in Australia in the last three-four years. This is significant as the industry is massively underpaid and heavily female-dominated. I think the undervaluation discourse suggests that the work that women have traditionally been responsible for, including care, sustaining communities, emotional labour, and ‘body’ work (eg nursing, hairdressing) has not been ‘valued’ highly by a market constructed for those with power over money and time – typically white men.

For extended analysis of undervaluation of women’s work with empirical evidence, see Burton, Hag and Thompson 1987. For a more recent analysis see Pocock and Alexander 1999.

Family responsibility

This frame comes in a few guises: women’s caring work, unpaid work, emotional labour, ‘the double bind’, and many more. I use the broad term ‘family responsibility’ to denote this group of ideas that usually refers to women’s care of children or older family members.

This argument is sometimes used by feminists (for example The National Foundation of Australian Women (NFAW) 2009), some trade unions (such as theAustralian Maritime Officers Union 2009) State and Federal Governments, and it is also used by businesses and their lobby groups to explain the gap in men and women’s earnings.

The differences in the ways this argument is used tend to be about either gender or ‘structural’ analysis. While feminists such as NFAW, or even the Federal Government department FaHCSIA use this argument in the context of an analysis of society-wide inequality in responsibility for child and elder care, or as an aspect of gender which is socially constructed and therefore vulnerable to change, others such as the employer group Restaurant and Catering Australia (2009) use a form of biological determinism to suggest that women are inevitably less skilled and paid less than men.


The final frame used in the debate over pay in/equity is ‘choice’, also termed lifestyle choice, or choice and responsibility (for children).

This frame is usually used by those arguing against policy change on pay equity, such as the employer association Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry(ACCI). It is a fairly simple argument that is linked to family responsibility above, and suggests that women’s choices over their life course, including education, profession (or lack thereof), sexuality and marriage, children (and number of children), and other factors, essentially mean that women “choose” to be paid less than men. Needless to say, this argument is deeply rooted in a liberal individualist analysis.

It is worth noting that a study in WA (the state with the largest gender pay gap at 29 per cent) has determined that even controlling for as many ‘preference’ variables as possible, only a quarter of the gap in that state could be explained (see Todd and Eveline 2004). There are many other such studies.

Political and Industrial Relations context

The political and industrial relations (IR) context of this issue is largely based around the State and Federal jurisdictional divide. Probably the most important thing to understand is that since the advent of WorkChoices in 2005, the IR system has been largely nationalised, and this was not reversed by Labor’s Fair Work Act.

Prior to this, the States were historically  powerful in IR matters, which is why people often refer to State Industrial Commission cases such as the NSW comparable worth case for Hairdressers, or the more recent QIRC cases discussed above.

Queensland and NSW have both had pay equity inquiries, in 2000 and 1998 respectively. Queensland is commonly regarded as having the most progressive system and there have been a number of successful cases in their jurisdiction. In a nutshell, in the 2009 Federal inquiry into pay equityQueensland, Victoria, NSW, South Australia and to a lesser extent the ACT, all took fairly progressive positions.

The Fair Work Act improved federal pay equity provisions considerably, which brings us to the current scenario – the federal pay equity case for community sector workers.

I hope to write about recent developments on this case soon.


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