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December 15, 2022

Inside the Gender Pay Gap Taskforce

South Australia has the smallest gender pay gap in the country, but a recently formed crack team has been tasked with state-based solutions to ensure everyone — from cleaners to chief executives — are paid an equitable wage.

  • Words: Angela Skujins

Abbey Kendall is the director of the Working Women’s Centre SA and was recently appointed to the South Australian Gender Pay Gap Taskforce, a body which aims to eliminate the state’s 7.4 per cent gender pay gap.

Though well equipped in the facts and figures of the issue, and many of the other problems women encounter in the workforce, she’s stumped when we ask her to articulate why eliminating the pay gap is a priority.

Abbey spends her days exploring the lived experience of women’s position in the economy being lower than men’s, and it takes her a moment to zoom out to this broader perspective.

“It’s such an interesting question, isn’t it?” Abbey says. “I don’t think I’ve thought about that for a long time.

“We’re trying to live, work and love in a society which treats people equally despite their sex or their race, or who they love, or what language they speak, or what class they’re from. So we should all be taking steps to try to reduce any kind of negative consequences or any disadvantage that somebody faces on the basis of their sex.”

The gender pay gap is an internationally established measure that quantifies women’s collective financial position in the paid workforce in comparison to men. Although South Australia has the narrowest gender pay gap nationally, it grew in the last quarter by 0.03 per cent. For the average full-time female worker, this translates to $124 less in their pay packet compared to their male colleagues.

There are many factors entrenching the pay gap. Unconscious bias, such as the notion that women are better suited to certain jobs, is one. And it also presents at an industrial scale, with some feminised industries, such as cleaning, retail, caring and health services, offering significantly lower pay.

Another influence is the high rate of part-time employment for women, who are more likely to take time off for caring or mothering duties. This has an impact on their retirement savings; the less they work, the less superannuation they accrue. A Monash study found single Australian women over 60 were the most likely household to live in poverty.

The Gender Pay Gap Taskforce was announced in September by South Australian Minister for Women and the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence, Katrine Hildyard, and has the aim of narrowing the gap until it’s completely eliminated.

In addition to Abbey, among the taskforce’s 12 appointees are South Australian Equal Opportunity Commissioner Jodeen Carney, South Australian Council of Social Services CEO Ross Womersley, and Member of the Legislative Council, Irene Pnevmatikos, who is also the chair.

Irene, who also chaired the Wage Theft Committee, worked as a solicitor for 14 years and held numerous senior positions with the South Australian Workers Compensation Tribunal before entering the Upper House. Her political profile outlines her track record of supporting women in the workforce, especially those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Although she tells CityMag the taskforce is only in an embryonic stage, it will “establish a clearer picture” of the issue in South Australia and develop recommendations for the State Government to implement.

“The objective is to develop strategies and look at what sorts of changes we need to make,” Irene says.

The taskforce’s first planning meeting is scheduled for the new year, but Irene offers a stark word of warning: “This is a big issue and we are behind the eight-ball”.

As a multi-faceted phenomenon, the gender pay gap is difficult to legislate against, but Abbey says there are legal instruments state and federal politicians can implement to tackle it.

“For example, bargaining within feminised sectors — as exemplified with the recent IR reforms,” she says.

“That’s going to allow low-paid women to basically collectivise and bargain for their wages as a group, as opposed to an individual, which will increase their bottom line and increase their salary or increase their hourly rate. That should go some way to reducing the gender pay gap.

“The other thing that we need to do is, obviously, pay transparency. That means knowing what everyone else is paid in the company.”

A federal Bill recently passed Parliament making it illegal for employers in the private sector to include pay secrecy clauses in employee contracts.

Federal Workplace Relations Minister, Tony Burke, said in his parliamentary address the move was designed to “Close the gender pay gap and take long-overdue steps to put gender equity at the heart of our workplace laws”. The national gender pay gap is 14.1 per cent — almost double South Australia’s figure.

Abbey says the gender pay gap comes up in most of the interactions the Working Women Centre has with its clients, and interplays with other industry issues, such as wage theft.

The Centre recovered more than $1 million for workers in the 2021—22 financial year, according to its annual report.

“Predominantly, the women that call up our centre are childcare workers, educators or working in the health and community sector,” Abbey says.

“But the most important thing is that we contribute to Fair Work Commission modern award review.

“We’re constantly calling for those feminised industries — cleaning, the health community sector, childcare, hospitality, retail — to have pay rises, and when those women receive pay rises, the gender gap will reduce.”

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