Priced less: Women are working more hours than ever before. But are they actually better off?

More Australian women are working than ever before, but most are in lower-paid jobs.

More Australian women are working than ever before, but most are in lower-paid jobs. Photo: Getty

Consecutive rate rises and the cost-of-living crisis are driving a growing number of Australian women into the workforce.

Women now make up almost half the paid workforce in Australia, compared to about 30 per cent in 1966.

And while one in five Australian women have risen into the role of CEO, a closer look at what the rest of the working women are doing to earn a crust reveals that in most cases, women continue to fill the lower-paid roles they were filling 35 years ago.

The gender pay gap exists in hourly wages and full-time wages.

It’s astounding to think that in 2023, women work 96.6 per cent of the hours worked by child carers, 86.9 per cent of hours worked by registered nurses and 79.9 per cent of the hours worked by primary school teachers.

Men, on the other hand, dominate construction trades and labouring professions, and the better-paid roles in the jobs market.

The gender segregation debate

A breakdown of the industries women are working in reveals that gender segregation is firmly rooted in Australian workplaces, remaining a key cause of inequality.

On average, women working full time earned a base salary of $1653.60 a week, compared to men’s take home pay of $1907.10, according to Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA). This puts the national gender pay gap, on base salary, at 13.3 per cent.

Women are also reporting much higher levels of financial stress than men. Meeting the costs of everyday life and achieving financial security, like medical bills and health care, are among the most common causes of stress.

However, achieving equal participation across occupations and sectors will not happen within most working women’s lifetimes, a WGEA report warns.

Although growing participation in the workforce represents economic equality for women and will see household incomes rise, Australia’s gender segregated workforce will take a long time to shift, Danielle Wood, CEO of public policy think tank The Grattan Institute, says.

“Care jobs which are overwhelmingly done by women are paid less than they should be. That’s under pressure to change, and indeed, will have to if we’re going to keep up with demand for these roles,” Ms Wood said.

She acknowledged that aged-care workers will receive a 15 per cent pay rise in July, while a continued push for rises in child care will go some way toward addressing the gender pay gap.

“Boosting pay for care workers would help attract more men, while creating training opportunities and scholarships for women in historically male-dominated professions such as engineering and IT would also help,” Ms Wood said.

The life-long impact

It’s fair to say that earning less has a massive, detrimental impact on the lives and the earning capacity of women.

By the time retirement rolls around, women will have 23.1 per cent less stashed away in their nest egg than men at the same age.

To make matters worse, knackered after a hard day at work, women also return home and get stuck into nine extra hours a week of unpaid work and care than men, and also handle five more hours of unpaid housework then men. It’s seriously grim.

Gender discrimination is the single largest contributor to the rise of industry and occupation segregation, and is the single largest contributor to the gender pay gap, a KPMG report confirms.

Parental lobby group The Parenthood has been calling for improved paid parental leave policies for years, pointing out that it has a direct impact on women’s workforce participation.

Occupational segregation

However, increasing female labour force participation without addressing occupational segregation will continue to see the majority of the female workforce confined to lower-paying occupations, warns labour economist Jeff Borland.

To really achieve labour market equity, and for Australia to be making the most of the talents of all workers, we need to break down the occupational segregation that currently exists, Professor Borland, of the Department of Economics, University of Melbourne said.

“It’s important to recognise that this doesn’t just mean females being able to move into what are currently male-dominated jobs, but also more males working in those jobs that are currently female-dominated,” Dr Borland explains.

Economy-wide reforms are needed to change societal norms around the types of jobs men and women ‘should’ do.

Changing the distribution of caring responsibilities and household work through reforms, such as the paid parental leave policy, could have an impact, Dr Borland says.

“To bring about change, men ultimately need to take on more unpaid care to free up women to participate in a broader range of jobs via improved parental leave policies and by promoting more flexible work in relatively high-paid, male-dominated jobs like construction.”

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