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THE GENDER PAY GAP – WHAT ARE THE STATISTICS TELLING US?

“When I think about my experience to date, I still feel positive and hopeful for the future because every time I have put my hand up for a new role or opportunity I have always had someone, whether it was my family, manager or mentor, encouraging me to go for it and offering me a seat at the table. ”
Fidez Oreta, Senior Consultant, HKA

HKA recently attended the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) Data Launch in Australia – an event which commemorated 50 years since Australian women first won the legal right for equal pay and shared key findings from WGEA’s reporting data for 2018-19. But how far have we really come in 50 years?

The gender pay gap dropped by only 0.5 percentage points in 2019 and still sits at 20.8%. On average men take home $25,679 more per year than women. If we continue to improve at the current rate, it will take another 42 years to close the gender pay gap in Australia.

To understand this statistic, we have to start at the basics. The gender pay gap is not synonymous with equal pay – which is equal pay for equal work.

The gender pay gap measures the difference between the average earnings of women and men, across organisations, industries and the work force, expressed as a percentage of men’s earnings. 

It is influenced by a number of factors including women and men working in different industries, under representation of women in senior roles, a disproportionate share of unpaid caring and domestic work and women spending a greater time out of the workforce.

How are these factors reflected in the 2018-19 statistics?

Over half of Australian employees work in industries that are dominated by one gender.

The top 3 industries in which men worked in 2018-19 were; Mining
(83% male), Construction (82% male) and Public Administration and Safety (81% male).

The top 3 industries for women were Health Care and Social Assistance (80% female), Education and Training (64%) and Retail and Trade (58%) – industries with typically lower base salaries which are further amplified by minimal opportunities for bonuses and overtime compared to industries which are predominantly male.

In 2018-19, the move towards gender balance stalled at the top levels:

  • Female CEOs remained static at 17.1%
  • Female Chairs have remained at 14.1%
  • 34% of boards and governing bodies have no female directors
  • By contrast, less than 1% of boards have no male directors.


The HESTA vital statistics report shows that women’s labour force participation declines after they reach their 30s (the most common age to have children). Almost half of mothers do not return to work for more than two years after their first baby and when they do, they face disadvantages in terms of hiring, pay, and daily job experience. Alarmingly, this is increasingly being referred to by sociologists as the ‘motherhood penalty’.

Women’s experiences in the workplace carry over into retirement. The finding I was shocked by the most is that the median superannuation balance held by women in Australia is $39,000. This is just 7% of the figure estimated by the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia required to achieve a comfortable retirement ($545,000).  In the last reporting period (2011-2016) of the Australian Human Rights Commission, the number of homeless women over 55 increased by 30% in 5 years and they continue to be one of the fastest growing group of people experiencing homeless in Australia today.

Since WGEA started reporting in 2013, the statistics have remained stubborn. Libby Lyons, Director of WGEA, said, “To me, the data is telling me employers either don’t believe that addressing gender equality will help their business or they’ve got a bit of fatigue about it. Employers are saying – we’ve got our policy in place and we’re going to focus on something else.’

On the same day that WGEA launched its 2018-19 statistics, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article headlined: ‘Diversity and inclusion fatigue slackens responses to gender pay gap’ and the Financial Review published: ‘Gender equality ‘fatigue’ sets in’. Both articles assert that we are in a state of ‘Diversity Fatigue’ – a phrase first used in the 1990s describing the feeling of stress and exhaustion associated with trying to create opportunities for diversity.

You don’t go to a board and say ‘Look we’ve done everything we can on health and safety’…. we’re a bit sick of it.” Libby Lyons, Director, WGEA

We can’t afford to let discouraging results stop us from working towards what we know is right. The gender pay gap is not a women’s problem for only women to address – we all have a role to play. The issue of gender equality must become gender equal itself if we want to drive change. We are 50 years past debating if women deserve equal pay or equal representation; we are now at the point where we need to change our inherent behaviours, actively confront our unconscious bias and interrogate the current system where we live and work. 

We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect better results. What can we do differently?

Confront workplace statistics and have the uncomfortable discussions. Without understanding the extent of the problem leaders cannot be part of the solution. In 2018, PwC publicly disclosed its firm-wide gender pay gap. Luke Sawyers, CEO of PwC Australia admitted that at first they were embarrassed with the statistics but emphasised that “transparency around diversity is one of the key ways we can address the challenges we face and hold ourselves accountable to real change.”

Set clear policies and be accountable. In 2018-19, the proportion of organisations reporting to WGEA who analysed their gender pay gap data increased to 45%. However, almost 40% of those employers took no subsequent action to close the gap. Leaders must be invested in the cause, championing equality programs and being active role models in equality initiatives.

Fix the system. The traditional thinking that recruiting is the biggest obstacle to fixing the gender imbalance in industries tends misidentify the main problem. We need to critically assess our organisations, call out deep-rooted cultural and behavioural issues and work towards fundamentally fixing the system and our unconscious bias. We cannot recruit women into positions then unknowingly set up them up to fail. 

Educate the wider network. Women continue to be under-represented in STEM education and careers with women from minority groups particularly under-represented. Whilst significant progress has been made to target females to participate in STEM, we also need to educate their wider networks, such as their friends, family and communities, in order to change perceptions of male dominated industries and gender stereotypes. We need to eliminate entrenched views of traditional gender roles and ensure females are empowered by their support networks.

The good thing about statistics is that they communicate the facts through numbers without being subjective, but it becomes easy to forget that behind each number is a person.

When I reflect on WGEA’s statistics for the year I realise that these statistics relate to my mum, aunts, friends, work colleagues and me. Growing up, my dad worked full time, my mum worked part-time, and she also made our lunches every morning, cooked dinner every night and cleaned the house every day. At high school my parents were surprised when I chose to study Civil Engineering, and even more surprised when I chose to work as a site-based engineer in construction. After university I was the only female on my first construction site and now looking back at my calendar for this month, I have been the only female in 11 out of 15 of my meetings.

When I think about my experience to date, I still feel positive and hopeful for the future because every time I have put my hand up for a new role or opportunity I have always had someone, whether it was my family, manager or mentor, encouraging me to go for it and offering me a seat at the table. But the reality is, when you look at the statistics we still have so far to go. We should not accept that it will take another 42 years to close the gender pay gap in Australia or that women will continue to live with its stark consequences for the rest of our lifetimes, and even our children’s lifetimes. We need to champion the cause and educate others to do the same. We all know it is the right thing to do – the responsibility now sits with us to drive the change and take action.

About the Author

Fidez Oreta is a Civil Engineer with experience in construction and project management, working on a range of major infrastructure transport projects in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. With a strong background in construction, Fidez specialises in applying her practical construction knowledge to project management, costing, reporting, procurement and contract administration.

When I think about my experience to date, I still feel positive and hopeful for the future because every time I have put my hand up for a new role or opportunity I have always had someone, whether it was my family, manager or mentor, encouraging me to go for it and offering me a seat at the table. ”
Fidez Oreta, Senior Consultant, HKA
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