What must be done to achieve equality in wages

Women will suffer if we fail to address gender imbalances in wages post-COVID, warns Deloitte Access Economic's Partner Nicki Hutley.

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Jobs have been lost, wages have suffered, businesses have folded, and lives have been permanently scarred because of the COVID-18 virus. And already-disadvantaged groups have been hardest hit, including women.

The official statistics don’t yet paint a full picture of what is happening across the economy as a result of COVID-19, but we do know that women have borne the brunt in terms of loss of their (already lower paid) jobs in the most vulnerable sectors of the economy, increased demands to care for children, and a significant exodus from the workforce all together.

While the focus of the economic impacts of the pandemic has, to date, centred on the sustainability of businesses and jobs, another outcome that will endure well beyond the pandemic is lower wages growth.

This was a problem even before COVID-19 hit, with growth in the Wage Price Index only a little above two per cent in the year to March 2020.

With higher unemployment now entrenched in Australia for another four or five years, downwards pressure on wages has been exacerbated.

And, if we fail to act to address gender imbalances, women will bear the brunt of this.

As we look for ways in which we can repair the damage of this pandemic, we need to ensure that we do not allow any increase in inequality to remain entrenched. So here are some of the things we should consider.

Women earn less than men for a range of reasons. We have understood these for a long time and we have the means to address them. There are no excuses.

The first issue is bias – conscious or otherwise – so that women are paid less for doing the same job. The gap here appears to be closing, although there is still work to be done.

A second issue is that women are still typically following career paths into lower paid work. It’s heartening to see organisations promoting women in STEM (and economics!) Giving women the confidence to study subjects where their passion and ability lies is critical.

Thirdly, irrespective of the career path, women face greater barriers in getting promoted to higher paying jobs. Fewer than one in five CEOs are women, despite representing almost half the workforce. Again, bias plays a role here, but so too does the unequal burden placed on women in juggling paid and unpaid work.

As the FWX shows, COVID-19 has only exacerbated the divide between men and women on this front.

Even if we return to the path of improvement seen before the pandemic, we are still a full generation away from achieving equality.

For many women, caring is a choice not a chore. But for those who wish to pursue a career, there needs to be greater support.

That means access to affordable childcare, greater flexibility in the workplace, as well as a cultural shift in what is “women’s work.”

I am encouraged by millennial attitudes, which seem to be shifting here. Finally, let’s acknowledge that combining career and caring can actually make people better equipped to be leaders because it strengthens their emotional intelligence (EQ) and their adaptability.

EQ is now seen as a critical success factor for leaders in the age of transforming technologies and economies.

Let’s recognise the value that women bring to the table – and pay them appropriately.

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