We Devalue Women’s Work, and If We Don’t Face It We’ll Never Fix the Pay Gap

We Devalue Women’s Work, and If We Don’t Face It We’ll Never Fix the Pay Gap
Image via Getty

I’m at a fancy, expensive restaurant. I’m wearing a nice dress and my hair is primped and curled. My boyfriend sits across from me. It’s our anniversary. Our dinner is what you’d expect: delicious food, a beautiful setting and, of course, a dessert set out on a plate that says ‘Happy Anniversary’. 

But when I bring my card out to pay, my boyfriend promptly snatches it from me. I feel my eyebrows furrow in confusion at his frenzied actions. Today was my turn to pay for dinner. 

He leans over the table, motioning for me to bring my head closer to his. “I don’t want the restaurant to think I can’t pay for dinner,” he whispers furiously. If I thought that was bad, the waiter makes me feel even worse. 

He takes the card from my partner before saying, “How nice of you to treat your girlfriend to a nice dinner for your anniversary!” 

My partner trying to act like the ‘provider’ when we both earned the same was a bit of a slap in the face. Why should it matter who pays for dinner when we’re eating expensive, gourmet food?

These types of actions are down to the fact that women’s work and the work in female-dominated industries are not valued as highly as men’s work in male-dominated industries. 

The statistics behind the bias

Earlier this year, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) reported that the national gender wage gap has risen from 13.4% to 14.2%. Calculated with data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, this figure rises to 16.7% when overtime hours and work is calculated. On average, women earn $323.30 less per week than men. 

[Notably, this data is not broken down to also consider elements like ethnicity, sexuality, religion and disability, which is understandably significant when discussing inequality.]

And while these statistics present the overall problem of the widening wage gap, they also demonstrate other tangible ways women in the working world are at a disadvantage because of gender.

To understand the narrative surrounding women’s work better, I spoke to Dr Leonora Risse, an Economist and Lecturer at RMIT and a fellow of the women and Public Policy Program at Harvard. 

Speaking over the phone, she explained that the widening wage gap just touches on the surface of the problem. 

Looking at industry is important

women work, inequality
Inequality in the workplace for women and other minorities goes beyond pay. Getty

The WGEA report states that even women in female-dominated industries still face wage inequality on some level. According to the report, the industry with the third-largest gender wage gap at 20.7 per cent is Healthcare and Social Assistance. In 2018, 79 per cent of the industry was women.

The undervaluation of women’s work is one of the key barriers cited in the October 2021 ‘Bridging the gap’ report as to why the gender wage gap continues to widen in Australia.

The report found that the “undervaluation of women’s work is perpetuating inequalities between male and female-dominated occupations and industries in a high gender-segregated workforce”. 

According to Broad Agenda, a gender-segregated workforce comes down to the fact that industries like Healthcare and Social Assistance are not as valued as other industries, with many not seeing the immediate benefits of this type of work (i.e. nurses, child care workers, aged care workers and mental health workers). This is problematic because it is this type of work that helps us to foster a healthy and educated society. 

Risse told me that the wage gap in female-dominated industries could be explained by occupational segregation within an industry. Meaning that even though both males and females may work in similar positions or in the same industry, “one type of masculine work is valued more than the other”. 

After speaking with Risse, it doesn’t surprise me as much that I couldn’t pay for dinner in a restaurant when the world doesn’t consider a woman’s work to be as valuable as a man’s. 

What about the women who earn more? 

In saying all that, there is some hope! A 2019 report from the WGEA found that female managers working in male-dominated organisations are more likely to earn salaries closer to their male colleagues.

Unfortunately, even though women who earn more than men may not face inequality directly through wages, they can still face bias and inequality in other ways. In similar, or even far more disruptive ways than me trying to pay for an expensive dinner. 

Risse explained that when women do step into positions of power or influence, they are often entering an environment that doesn’t support them. This is because most positions of power and higher-paying roles are traditionally male-dominated roles or in male-dominated industries. 

And with a salary increase, there comes a lack of support for female leadership from fellow colleagues. Risse shared that there are male figures in these spaces who are not always supportive of females in higher-paying occupations. “What we can see is push back, and this can be overt or implicit,” she said.

The research confirms her statement. According to a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, some men in subordinate positions in the workplace can feel threatened, leading them to behave more assertively and aggressively towards women who work above them.

Some men in the workplace may feel angry that women are “encroaching on the male space because we don’t encourage boys or men to think that success can also come from maternal type jobs,” Dr Risse told me.

And so when women do step into what are often seen as male-dominated roles, they may not be welcomed into these positions. 

Where do we go from here?

As much I felt horrible not paying for dinner that night, what I felt was a fraction of what many other women in power feel every single day of their lives.

Even if we were to abolish the wage gap, there would likely still be women facing the same bias and sexism because of archaic ideas surrounding ‘women’s work’. 

Risse believes there are some ways we can slowly begin to break this rhetoric down, though. She writes in Power to Persuade that it’s not just about encouraging and uplifting women in male-dominated roles, “but also about liberating men to step into roles that go beyond the traditional image of masculinity. This includes supporting men to choose vocations in the care sector”. 

Ultimately, if we don’t start breaking down this narrative then we will continue to live in a world where even when women do earn equal pay, they will continue to be undermined in other ways.

Like women in power not being treated the same way as their male counterparts. Or work in female-dominated industries being consistently undervalued. …Or when a man is too embarrassed to let his girlfriend pay for dinner. 

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