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The Gender Pay Gap Has Widened And Mums Are Worst Off

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Here’s why, and what you can do about it.

Earlier this month the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) announced that Australia’s national gender pay gap has increased from 13.4% in 2020 to 14.2% in 2021. This means women have to work an additional 61 days to make the same as men, or, if you frame it another way, are essentially working from the end of the last financial year until August 31, for free.

We’ve had good awareness of the gender pay gap for many years now, but it hasn’t helped to lessen it. Additionally the COVID pandemic has affected women much greater than men because they are more likely to be employed casually or part-time, and make up the majority of industries that were hit hardest: travel, hospitality and bricks-and-mortar retail.

In an official statement WGEA Director Mary Wooldridge said the increase in the pay gap was "concerning and served as a warning to ensure continued focus, effort and commitment to bring it back down again." Sadly, the biggest contributing factor to the pay gap is being a mum. Poor maternity leave schemes, unpaid labour (breastfeeding for one year alone equates to 1800 hours, and a full-time job with four weeks annual leave is 1960 hours) and crippling child care fees all contribute to mums not being supported enough to return to their career, which leads to further prejudices. “I do worry that we will see an amplification of the stereotyping of caregivers, with employers making all sorts of assumptions about women who have caregiving needs,” said Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO of the National Women's Law Center. “These stereotypes may impact women’s ability to get hired in the first place, get promoted, or get an opportunity that makes the difference between moving up or not, based on nothing except biases and perceptions that mothers do less. That perception already existed before the pandemic. This last year, with our care infrastructure crumbling, may make this bias all the more potent.”

This is a societal issue, but it’s an issue mums, and women who may want children in the future, are most impacted by, and hence need to be the most informed about. To learn how, we spoke to Victoria Devine, author of She’s on the Money and host of the She’s On The Money Podcast, and Jamila Rizvi, author of Not Just Lucky and The Motherhood.

See it, say it

“The pay gap is the result of gender inequality and damaging stereotypes about the role of women and men,” says Jamila. “We can all be part of addressing that by calling out - or in - gender inequality as we witness it in our own lives. Think about the organisation you work in and the power you have within it. Consider the hiring, promotion and training practices. Are they transparent? Are they fair? Is paid parental leave available to those who need it, regardless of gender? Is flexible work an option for everyone and do employees really feel empowered to ask for it?” Part of the reason the gap is widening despite more companies offering parental leave is this last point, it might be part of the sales pitch, but the culture within the company doesn’t always encourage it in practice. Particularly in the case of paternity leave.

Plan for it

Research estimates that it will take another 26 years for the full-time total remuneration gender pay gap to close completely, which means we need to take our finances into our own hands. As early as possible. “It’s a fickle topic,” says Victoria, “because most of us aren’t thinking about the impacts of taking time off to care for and build a family in our early 20s, but that’s when we really need to be putting a plan in place.” Women retire with nearly 30 percent less super than men, partly due to time taken to care for their family. “Many women are now choosing to increase their superannuation contributions to make up for when they will not be in the workforce and contributing. The best thing you can do though, is have open and honest conversations with your partner about what this means financially for the long term – is your partner willing to consider contributing to your superannuation while you’re not in the workforce?” Above and beyond this, Victoria advocates for a solid household budget and cash flow plan. “Have this in place before you take any leave so you know what to expect, and how long you can be financially secure for. This will not only be a powerful tool for planning, but give you a lot of confidence and empowerment throughout your time off.”

There is more than one way to parent

“Parental leave doesn’t have to be only taken by the mother,” says Victoria. “Many parents are now choosing to split their care taking between both parents so the mother doesn’t have to miss out on being in the workforce for an extended period of time.” The parental benefits of both parents’ jobs should be considered and evaluated. They are often stipulated for the “primary carer” and can be taken at any time. “Primary carer” isn’t a fixed role. You can take turns. Maybe mum takes the first six months to also allow her recovery time and her partner takes the next three or six months to be the baby’s full-time carer. This gives each parent the opportunity to have full understanding of the others experience, and have enough information to work out what care/work arrangement would make each of them happiest as the kids grow. We are all different. Some mums find they have a more positive relationship with their children when they’re off to work each day. Some dads, when given the opportunity, find they thrive in the fulltime carer role. But you have to test the waters to figure this out.

Child care is a household expense, not a mum’s expense

“Quite reasonably, most families with young children will consider the decision for the second parent to return to work, and weigh up the financial benefit against the cost of child care,” says Jamila. “The problem is that ’second parent’ is 9/10 times going to be a woman and - because of the gender pay gap - she likely earns less. This means we’re framing child care as the ‘cost’ of a woman returning to work, when really we need to reframe it as the cost of any adult in the household working. So much of gender inequality is ingrained in our day-to-day lives and we need to interrogate it more rigorously.” Further to this, Victoria points out it’s not always about the money. “When it comes to getting women back into the workforce and the cost of childcare, sometimes the best ‘financial’ decision is not best for the family, woman, or the future of her career,” she says. “While you might not end up coming out financially ahead if you make the decision to return to work, choosing to go back to work keeps your skills relevant and has social aspects that may end up paying dividends over the long term. Your career can often benefit significantly from that decision, which, over the long term, will financially benefit your family. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to this decision, but I do think we need to take the pressure off ourselves when it comes to ‘staying home because it’s financially the best decision’. That doesn’t mean it’s the best decision mentally, professionally or even long-term financially.

These are extraordinary circumstances

With much of the country in lockdown, child care options stripped and pressures of money, parenting, health and lack of usual freedoms mounting, parents are facing an uphill battle right now, especially in families where both parents work full time, or in single working-parent households. “Remember that it wasn’t supposed to be like this,” says Jamila. “These are extraordinary circumstances and you are not expected to do everything to Instagram-worthy levels. Make time for yourself even when that feels impossible. Let some of your standards or hours drop just a little. Remember that you’re staying home to stay safe from a deadly global pandemic. Not to be the most productive worker and engaged parent ever.”