Men’s pay on my mind

By Dr Kim Johnstone, UN Women NC Australia MBA Scholarship recipient and current student in The University of Sydney Business School MBA

Men’s pay has been on my mind. As the recipient of the UN Women NC Australia MBA Scholarship, this year I have spent a lot of time thinking about the under-representation of women in top leadership positions. When I applied for the scholarship, I wanted to be one of the women who account for gender equity on boards, as a CEO, and by being paid as much as the blokes.

More importantly, I wanted to make sure that the two and a half million female millennials about to enter or newly entering the workforce in Australia this year don’t experience the same crushing disappointment (and anger and frustration) I have throughout my career when they come up against bias, inequity and good old discrimination.

Last week was Australia’s Equal Pay Day, 65 days into the new financial year. This marks the number of extra days a year a woman has to work to earn the same as a man. This week I was part of a panel at an event organised by the University of Sydney’s Network of Women and Work and Organisational Studies Society to mark Equal Pay Day. The agenda was a call to practical action to address unequal pay. So women’s pay has been on my mind a lot too.

When I finished my first Masters degree over 20 years ago, I thought the issues of sexism and gender discrimination I learnt about while a student would be gone when my generation hit the workforce. How naïve that seems two decades on. Now I’m starting another Masters, with the express purpose of bringing my experience together in a way to make change happen.

But words and intentions are not enough. What practical things can we do to make sure this conversation is not being repeated in 2035?

A lot has been said and written about the need for leadership from the top to increase women’s representation at senior levels and therefore pay equity. These are all vitally important, and I encourage and applaud them.

But it is the everyday decisions informed by unconscious bias (and probably other types of bias) that I think will create change in our future. Not just in our workplaces, but also at home. Not just for men, but also for women. Not just in the top jobs, but across all industries and occupations. (To see how pervasive pay inequity is in Australia, see “The Glass Ceiling Index” – women out earn men in only five per cent of occupations, and even where the workforce is mostly female, males are more likely to reach the highest paying roles – even in midwifery!).

So what does bias look like? For me it has looked like working all summer on a construction crew during my undergraduate studies for a new shopping complex. Once classes resumed I got a job as part-time cleaner in the complex. Two more part-time cleaners were employed to cover the weekend roster. Both were males. Both got paid more than me because they were employed under a different award. When your job is the difference between having a job and no job, you’re not inclined to complain too loudly about inequality and unfairness.

Bias is having my position restructured out of existence while on maternity leave. This is not unusual. One of my friends was told that her newly created position had been a mistake when she found herself pregnant. Last year, a damning report by the Human Rights Commission found one in two women experienced discrimination during pregnancy or when returning to work. About 250,000 babies were born in Australia last year – that’s 125,000 women who faced discrimination.

Bias is having colleagues and managers assume that as a mother I am less available than I am. People often say, “you won’t want to stay away overnight, stay late, start early …”. It’s not hard to see that unconscious bias about the availability of a mother, or about the best way to support a parent, means fewer opportunities to perform (and be promoted, and paid more).

Bias is assuming flexibility at work is for mothers. Bias is assuming fathers don’t need flexibility (or adult children with ageing parents, or sports people training for a half marathon). My partner once had a full time, completely inflexible job where he had to be at his desk 8.30am to 5.30pm. Luckily, I had flexible work. Indeed, if my workplace had not been flexible, one of us would have had to resign. The one time I asked my partner to go to work early in order to leave early for an allied health run with our son, he got pulled into his manager’s office for what can only be described as a bollocking. And part of it was being asked, “is your wife doing her fair share at home?” [my response can’t be published].
My stories of bias are not unusual. I live them and I hear them when I talk to the men and women I work and play with. It takes very little imagination to see how one small bias builds on another until population-level inequity and discrimination is the norm. We all have bias and assumptions. The good thing about that is that we can all challenge our own bias and take action to make sure our bias doesn’t lead to discrimination.

Challenge your assumptions about how men and women work. Think about unconscious bias that may equate work place flexibility with part time work. Bias that means women’s work is judged on how she looks and talks, not what she delivers. Bias that assumes women with children won’t leave their children overnight but men will. Bias that assumes you can’t have two careers in a family.

My call to everyone, particularly today and tomorrow’s leaders, is to ensure the future looks different to the past. If you assume men and women should get the same money for the same job, then action is required. I don’t have the patience for the pace of change in relation to pay equity that I’ve seen in the past 20 years.  So talk, challenge, promote women and make women’s pay the same as men’s pay.

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.

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