The gender pay gap and difficult women on The Future, This Week

This week: gender pay gap Groundhog Day, and the tyranny of niceness. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.

Our guest this week: Professor Rae Cooper

The stories this week

00:45 International Women’s Day: Groundhog Day for the gender pay gap

16:15 Why we need difficult women: fighting the tyranny of niceness

Other stories we bring up

Our previous TFTW episode with Rae Cooper

Our discussion with Rae Cooper about The University of Sydney’s landmark study into what women want at work

Girl Scouts launch gender equity certification for businesses

How sexist will the media’s treatment of female candidates be? Rule out ‘not at all.’

What’s Really Holding Women Back?

Hello, Please Stop Man-Bashing My Husband As A Conversation Starter


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This transcript is the product of an artificial intelligence - human collaboration. Any mistakes are the human's fault. (Just saying. Accurately yours, AI)

Disclaimer We'd like to advise that the following program may contain real news, occasional philosophy and ideas that may offend some listeners.

Intro This is The Future, This Week on Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter, I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful and things that change the world. Okay, let's start. Let's start!

Kai Today on The Future, This Week: gender pay gap groundhog Day and the tyranny of niceness.

Sandra I'm Sandra Peter, I'm the Director of Sydney Business Insights.

Kai I'm Kai Riemer, professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group.

Kai So, Sandra, what happened in the future this week?

Sandra Women's Day is coming up and we've got Professor Rae Cooper back on the show

Kai So, Professor Rae Cooper, welcome back. We talked last year, Rae Cooper is Professor of Gender, Work and Employment Relations, and will talk to us about the gender pay gap.

Sandra So we thought because it's International Women's Day, we would again talk about women's issues. And the first story for today comes from Women's Agenda. And it's titled "Not good enough: Gender Pay Gap drops teeny-tiny 0.1 percentage points in six months". So, Rae, that sounds very, very low. But before we can talk about that, what is the gender pay gap anyway?

Rae Mmm, good question. The gender pay gap is calculated on Australian Bureau of Statistics data, and it includes average weekly ordinary time earnings. And so what that includes is workers who are full-time male, workers who are full-time, female. It excludes part-time workers and it excludes any payment which is above, that might be bonus or other loadings. So in a way, it's kind of best case scenario of the difference between men's wages and women's wages. So often when I try to explain this, people will say yes, but what about the women who are out of the labour force who are looking after children? They're not in it. What about the women who work part-time? They're not included. What about the bonuses in the finance sector? That's not included. So it is fill-time men, full-time women, and the difference between them, and it is a national figure. So it doesn't go down to the level of industry. The reason we look at that national gender pay gap figure is to be able to check in on a broad basis over time, on a yearly basis, what's going on in terms of those differences between men and women. What's more important often is to actually go down to the level of industry and occupation, which we're increasingly able to do. Also looking at what's happening with particular employers, and what's happening there and whether there's any movement there. But the position we're at at the moment with 13.9 percentage point gap or about $255 per week difference between full-time men and full-time women is where we're at. And last year when we had a chat, it was 14.1 per cent.

Sandra Pretty much the same.

Rae So we wouldn't say that's a lot of movement.

Kai So if we just looked at what women take home in terms of pay, the full picture is even worse because we have more women in part-time work and we might have bonuses that are much higher in male-dominated occupations and also men might be able to negotiate higher bonuses.

Rae Absolutely correct. Yes. So if we look at total earnings, it's more like 45 per cent gap. So it's best case scenario. This 13.9 per cent. Even that is those who are in the labour force at the time that the work is done.

Sandra And you mentioned this differs widely across industries. Can you give us a bit of an idea...?

Rae So it's highest, I think we're looking at areas like health specialisations and in finance, down to the lowest level, which is at about 10 per cent for direct employees of the government. So public servants and in areas like policing, they are closer together. And you tend to find in areas where you have more highly regulated wages. So where there are strong award rates of pay or enterprise agreements through collective bargaining, there's a closer fit there, often because they're lower paid areas and often they're paid at best the minimum wage.

Kai So we've seen a lot of deregulation in the past decades. Does that generally make things worse?

Rae Yeah. So if we go back in Australian history, in recent memory, a point at which we saw quite a big spike in the gender pay gap was under WorkChoices, which is a time when we deregulated minimum wages and sort of pulled the floor out actually underneath award rates of pay. And we saw quite a big opening up of the wage gap, it jumped a couple of per cent. So regulation can make a difference, but it's not the only thing. How the economy's faring has quite an influence as well. And I think at the moment, if we have a look at what's happening, where we've got the Reserve Bank, we've got most economists in any of the big consulting firms talking about the problems that we have about depressed wages. Really what they're talking about is depressed male wages. So I think we need to keep the fact that we've got a 13.9 Percentage point gap between full-time working men and full-time working women, we need to keep that in the perspective of men's wages aren't moving. I mean, women's wages aren't skyrocketing either. But we know those lower quintiles of men, their wages are holding very, very steady. And that's a big problem for the country. So I would say from that, if male wages start moving again, you tend to see a bit of a split then between men and women.

Sandra So what's the solution, because obviously policies and strategies don't seem to do the job. We are having this conversation on the podcast. We've had the same conversation last year and probably the years before.

Kai And we will probably have the same conversation next year, which is kind of the point why we're here, right? Because we're not making progress.

Rae Yeah. It's kind of depressing. And, you know, when I talk about a lot of this stuff, I sometimes feel like the gender grim reaper, you know, here she comes again, saying the same stuff again. But unfortunately, things aren't moving. And I think one of the reasons is because it's not one thing that is causing the problem. So there's not one thing we need to do to fix it. So everyone knows about the glass ceiling, there are less and less women in really senior roles. And we have that classic organisational pyramid where there's more women at the bottom and less at the top. That plays a role. We also have the glass walls, and that's about the occupations and professions in which women or men predominate. Australia has a very highly gender-segregated labour force, on some estimates the most highly segregated in the OECD. It just so happens that the areas where women absolutely predominate are the lowest paid. And that's about that undervaluation of caring professions, health, professions, childcare, aged care, those kind of areas. But then we also have the sticky floor. And that's about looking at the areas in which there are poor career paths, which are often precarious employment. And the majority of those jobs are taken by women. So you've got a whole bunch of stuff going on at once, and that's just in the paid labour force because there's also stuff going on at home about the bounded choice that women have around labour market participation. Whether that's about state support for things like childcare and making childcare affordable, access to pre-school and things like that, or aged care. And it tends to be that that care for kids falls more often to women than it does to men. And it's also around the relative wages of the men and women in the home and then making what are often very rational choices about who's working and who's not working in the paid labour force. So it's a tricky problem that has many stakeholders, it has many dimensions. So we need to take action across all of those levels is kind of what I'm trying to say.

Sandra You mentioned the glass ceiling and the sticky floor, and there was an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review this week around what's holding women back. And the observation there was that women made remarkable progress in the 70s and in the 80s, getting into positions of power or positions of authority. But that has considerably slowed down in the 90s and it has stopped altogether over the last 20 years. Why is that?

Rae Well, before we go back to the depressing stuff, I think one thing we have to acknowledge, sorry, I'm going to un-grim reaper myself. One thing we do have to acknowledge is that particularly the 80s and 90s, the professions opened up to women, not entirely, but women could actually get through the door of professions. And that's about the massive increase in higher education across the developed world. And women were able to go into the professions of law and medicine and accounting and, you know, all of those other kinds of areas. And so that meant that there was an immediate uptick in women's participation in those areas. But the study in the HBR this week is talking about those people who've really made it, right. So we're talking about top consultants in top consulting firms and about the challenges that they face. And even those women are stalling, is what they're arguing there.

Sandra And the usual explanation is that women are so dramatically under-represented, because in the end, well the inevitable truth is that women will want to spend time with their family and they want to spend time with their kids, and they just can't commit to the long hours that these professions demand. But the truth is not that simple, is it?

Rae Well, a little bit of truth to it, right, with a lot of these things. So women do tend to do more of the unpaid labour at home. That's very different to going down the line of argument that someone like Catherine Hakim, a quite famous sociologist, argued is that that's a preference that women have. A lot of critiques of that kind of argument say that actually what women have is structured choice around the things that they want and like to do, whether that's at home or in work, and that they sort of make choices about what's possible for them. So I think assuming that it's only about the desire to look after children or to do whatever it is they want to do at home, and that's the thing that's holding them back is also a bit of a trap for women, because we do know that where women or men actually choose to work on a part-time basis, for example, when you get yourself off the promotion and the career trajectory ladder or the escalator, that can have scarring effects. So time out of work or time working part-time has a scarring effect on your capacity to be promoted. It has a lifelong effect on your earnings over time and then therefore on your retirement earnings. So there's a bit of a trap. If the only thing we're relying on is having what they argue in this paper is 'accommodating strategies'. So things like the capacity to work part-time, if that's the only thing that we're trying to do, we're sort of setting women up to be disadvantaged, in a way.

Kai The article in this case also made two interesting points which was that a lot of the senior male colleagues seemed to assume that being a mother is like the standard picture of a woman.

Rae So being a woman is being a mother, it's the same thing. Which we know is not correct, right?

Kai Yeah. But even if that argument held, the article also pointed out that all women, regardless of whether they had children or not, found it harder to actually progress up to partner, right. So this seems to be a powerful, dominant narrative that sort of becomes an excuse almost to mask that there are deeper structural problems.

Rae Yes structural, absolutely, and also cultural I think. When I was reading this I was thinking about Judy Wajcman's wonderful book called "Managing Like a Man".

Sandra And we will have Judy on the podcast very soon.

Rae We are very lucky to have Judy visiting us here at the University of Sydney this week. And what Judy argues is that women are trapped when they go into senior management roles because they're trapped between the: what you have to do to be an ideal woman, which is to be likable and lovely and motherly and, you know, all of those kinds of things, and consensus building and all the rest of it. And what you have to do to be an ideal leader: and that means to be directive, even to be strategic and to be abrupt. And that it's difficult to be an ideal woman and an ideal leader at the same time.

Kai Well if you're a women you're abrupt, if you're a man, you're decisive, right?

Rae Yeah. Which goes back to the gender norms around what's appropriate behaviour for women and what's appropriate behaviour for men. And I'm sure that boxes men in as well around the way you need to perform leadership as a man.

Sandra Except in a slightly bigger box.

Rae It's a gold box. Yeah, so it doesn't necessarily reflect reality, but it's a deeply held kind of assumption about what women are and what men are and what is the right and the appropriate thing to be as either.

Kai To get to the bottom of this story the authors had to dig a little bit deeper and uncover what was actually behind those problems of women progressing.

Rae So one of the things that they argue are those deep cultural stereotypes and the ways in which women can't quite measure up to those ideals, but also in this context of consulting firms, it's about those very, very, very long hours. And that those expectations around the performance of long hours for those professionals actually is the thing that's at the heart of their challenges for workers in that sector, which I think they argue are unpleasant and limiting for women, but are also unpleasant and limiting in other ways for men.

Kai Yeah, and the article which we'll put in the shownotes, it's actually worth reading because it's one of those really well-written academic articles that bring a topic to life. And there's a number of quotes and stories about men who struggle quite profoundly with not being there for their children, who also find these work hours jarring, but also because of stereotypes, make different choices in the workplace which help them in the long run with their career, while women tend to be almost pressured into other pathways.

Rae Because that's the ideal thing that they're meant to do, but it doesn't mean that the men are happy. I think it's interesting. And Robin Ely, who's at Harvard Business School, is a complete star in the academic writing as well. So I reckon read this, and also follow up her academic articles.

Kai And the most sobering finding in the end in this particular company was, and that's why we're gonna be here next year again, is that even after being presented with this data and the empirical finding, the leadership basically rejected those findings, said 'No no no, it's actually...'.

Sandra Work, family.

Kai Yeah, they went back to these stereotypes.

Rae Women want to go and look after their children. Yeah, that's what norms are all about. We revert to them even in the face of being challenged by evidence.

Sandra And this ends up self-reinforcing what happens in the company and it acts as an invisible mechanism that perpetuates this, even in the face of evidence.

Kai So Rae, what can we do then to be here next year and discuss more than one improvement?

Rae Well, I hope it's an improvement and it's not going backwards. Well, if we are looking at business, which we are in a business school, I think we need to have a look at what organisations and organisational leaders can do. So we have the Workplace Gender Equality Agency has a system where they reward and accredit those people who are sort of best in show, if you like, in terms of the private sector organisations who report to them. And that's across a range of things, including having performed a gender pay equity audit. You know, an increasing proportion of organisations are doing this, which allows you to see with very plain evidence about where the gaps are in terms of gender pay gaps, and where you need to pay attention to taking some action.

Kai Is this a government agency?

Rae Yeah it is, it's a statutory authority.

Kai Okay, I just found an article yesterday which we'll put in the shownotes which reports on Girl Scouts of the USA, so a private entity, launching a Fair Play, Equal Pay certification where companies can make a pledge and then subject themselves to a rigorous assessment after a while. And they have companies like EY and SAP sign up for it. So that would be a similar thing. But you're saying that in Australia we're actually a little bit of a step ahead, because we have, is it a federal...?

Rae Yeah, it's federal. And it's the Employer of Choice Awards. So of the people who report to the agency, the ones that are doing the best and have leading practice across a range of indicators. So I think having a look at some of the things that those organisations are doing and don't reinvent the wheel, do what they've done, but also do a gender pay equity audit. If you do an audit and see that you have problems and where the problems are, it's interesting on the workplace gender equality agency's data, not a large proportion of people actually act on the audit after they do it. So it would be great to see an increasing number of businesses doing those audits, who are paying for them, to actually follow through and take action. So where we need to take remedial action, like pay women more in a particular area or to revalue the skills of workers in a particular area, take some action, actually put your money where your mouth is and that will make a difference.

Kai So you would think that companies can actually get good public image or publicity out of making progress. Do you think they're afraid to go public with these measures because they're starting from such an unequal basis to begin?

Rae Look, I think some businesses actually are really proud of, as they should be, of the things that they're doing that are making a real difference. And I think there is actually some hot competition there amongst different groups in different sectors, including our own, the higher education sector for the universities here who are on the list, or the finance companies that are on the list, because it's relative to the sector that you're in.

Kai And we want to actually give a shout out to the Business School, because the majority of our senior leadership is actually female in the Business School, which is a big change that has happened in the last 10 years.

Rae Over the last five years actually, under our current Dean is what I would say. So if we decide that we're going to take some action and follow through on it rather than just talk the talk, we can make a change. And it's nice to work in a place like that.

Sandra It is absolutely great to work here, which is why, um, it's a difficult segue to the next story which comes from The Guardian and it's titled "Fighting the Tyranny of Niceness: Why We Need Difficult Women".

Kai And I have no comment.

Rae On difficult women. I do. I think I am one. I'm very proudly a difficult woman. I think it is just so important that we have women, and men actually, who are the types of people who will stand up for women and who will argue the toss about things that they don't think of fair, and who will use data and evidence to inform others about some of the sometimes challenging things that we face in workplaces.

Sandra I think this is a fascinating topic because it is difficult to even define what a difficult woman is. Few years ago, Theresa May was labelled as a 'bloody, difficult woman'. It wasn't a term of endearment, and we're not talking about difficult as in rude or obnoxious or princessy. We're trying to talk about complicated women here. And quite often being complicated for women has been seen as problematic. People who have views that do not conform to the norm. People who do not conform to what a woman in the public eye should be, and a nice article in the ABC talks about how much women are judged, increasingly so over the last 30 years, especially if they're on the political scene. But how do we think about role models that are not quite perfect, that are complex, that are difficult?

Rae Well, men are allowed to be complex and not perfect and allowed to have an amount of variety. So I think it goes back to the earlier conversation we were having about what are the appropriate roles that women are allowed to play, whether that's in public life or work or whether it's in their home life. So I think it's about the ideals that we're meant to conform to. And I think that can be challenging for people to get their heads around, when rather than having a politician or having a CEO, we have to refer to a SHeEO, or a 'female politician'. It's kind of like the qualifier to the real thing, which is the male norm. So I think that's sort of where it all stems from.

Sandra Why is it so important for women to be likeable? There was an article in The Washington Post that said that likability is one of the really, really important qualities for women, that is not so important in men. For instance, for someone running for office it was seen as unlikable for women to be extremely ambitious or power seeking women were seemed to be angry and contentious, rather than men who are seen to be just ambitious.

Kai When you have someone like Hillary Clinton who basically had to play a game that she couldn't win, she had to be decisive and she had to be strong. But that made her then not likable and not relatable.

Rae Relatable, yeah right.

Kai So how then do you square that?

Rae Yeah, so I think we saw the same thing with our first female prime minister in Julia Gillard. Remember all of that stuff about the 'real Julia'? That she was sort of boxed in in a way and had to behave in a particular way to conform to gender norms, to sort of look a bit more, talk a bit more like the way men talk, that she then ended up boxing herself in and sort of talking in a way that she, self-describes, says, 'I felt a bit like a robot, you know, in the way that I had to perform things, because otherwise I would be seen as a shrieking banshee, overly emotional and unlikable, unrelatable'. So I think it's a really big challenge for women in those kind of situations. But that's not to say that Julia Gillard wasn't likeable. I think she was enormously likeable. And in fact, if you have a look at how women in Australia related to Gillard, they were cheering that they had one of us leading the country. That was something that was celebrated by very many of us.

Kai And as a man, I can tell you that I did not identify with her opponent, right, at the time, who was loud and overly masculine and tried to tear her down for being a woman at every instance.

Rae And actually able to use quite denigrating gendered terms. I don't know if I'm allowed to say this on this podcast, but she was referred to by people all over the place as being a bitch. You know, she's, she's our prime minister.

Sandra She herself, and I'm quoting from a piece of research from the Australian National University, she herself said "you hold yourself back from getting too angry, too animated, too passionate because you're fearful of being labelled hysterical or shrill. You hold back yourself from being too emotional because you're too worried about being criticised as soft". So she ended up walking a very narrow path of what was 'okay'...

Rae As a leader and as a woman. It's tricky. Could you imagine Malcolm Turnbull saying that? Can you imagine Scott Morrison saying that? Can you imagine Tony Abbott saying that? There's not that same tightrope to be walked.

Sandra Trump, Bernie Sanders.

Rae No. And the different way that Warren is being treated at the moment compared to Sanders. It's really quite extraordinary and so obvious that all of this stuff plays out all of the time when we look at leadership.

Sandra So the article in The Guardian makes the case that with women, quite often we idealise role models and we airbrush or rather sandblast the historical figures or the women we hold up, and take away everything that makes them complex or difficult.

Rae Mmmm, so we need to make them into a saint, the patron saint of women.

Kai Yeah, and the example of Coco Chanel is given as this woman who overcomes obstacle, and she becomes this heroic fashion designer. And it's a very sort of clean-washed story that forgets that she also had a bit of a dark history being a lover of a Nazi officer in Nazi Europe back in the 30s. And we tend to leave these things out to tell this clean story of a successful female role model. And isn't that a danger that if we look at girls today who want to aspire to be in those roles, that if we make those people too perfect and too much into a heroine, that you cannot actually aspire to them because they seem to have no flaws, they seem to have these elegant careers, and wouldn't it be better to actually, you know...

Rae Have a bit of a messiness, yeah.

Kai Yeah, have a bit of a real story behind those.

Rae I guess so. But what do they say? The victor always writes the history. So the successful people are the ones who write their own story I suppose. I agree, Kai. You can be all sorts of things at once. You don't just have to be a patron saint of being a successful woman or of women's rights. You can also be cranky, sometimes aggressive,.

Sandra Sometimes cynical.

Rae Yeah, cynical, angry. Honestly, some of these trailblazing feminists who've, I'm not so much talking about Coco Chanel whose life I know very little about, but talking about some of the leaders in the women's movement. I mean, yeah, a motivated, angry woman is something that actually often gets things done. In my experience, anyway.

Kai So, I want to go to another aspect of this article which talks about the role of feminism. And the point I want to make is that we tend to think about feminism maybe subconsciously as pitching the genders against each other, that feminism is up to women to sort out. When the article gives a really good definition of what feminism is, according to Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and she says a feminist is someone who believes in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes. Now, that's not radical, is it?

Rae I don't think so at all.

Sandra No.

Rae And that's not something that women have exclusive rights to. It's something that actually, if we're going to be successful in achieving that equality, that we need men with us trying to seek that equality.

Kai Yeah, and there was an article which we could also put in the shownotes, about a woman basically giving a rant about how her husband, who looks after the children, who does a lot of the housework, is often derided by her female friends and being made fun of. That, if we fall outside of any stereotypes, we seem to have a hard life, and knowing that it is the culture that is actually underpinning the gender pay gap, right. This is what it boils down to, it's the norms, the stereotypes, the culture that we live every day.

Rae Also the structures. But yeah, absolutely, culture underpins structure, yeah.

Kai So what do we do?

Rae Well, I think posing gender inequality as an issue that women need to fix is a really big problem. One of the reasons why it's a problem is because men need to take action towards equality for women. It doesn't just mean that women saying more and more, 'we've got a problem. We've got a problem. We've got a problem'. Men need to go, 'yes, there's a problem and we need to do something'. The problem, however, is that our research that we've shown through our Women and the Future of Work project here at the University of Sydney, is that when you ask women and men, 'is the workplace in which you work, and is the labour market in which you work equal for men and women, are men treated better, women treated better or everyone treated the same?'. Two thirds of men say that people are treated the same in both their workplace and more broadly. Two thirds of women say 'no, things are unequal'. So we've got a bit of a perception problem here as well, so that men aren't seeming to see the same realities of what women are saying that they're experiencing. So I think that's really at the nub of the issue, right, how we get to have a conversation about something that half of the population doesn't actually believe exists.

Kai I also want to put aside another argument that we often hear that it's about better education. But you have found as well that in Australia in particular, women already have the kind of education that you would expect.

Rae Yeah, the only place in which we have a gender gap that favours women is in educational attainment. So women outstripped men in bachelor's attainment, in post-graduate attainment, in school completion. Yeah, so education, we always thought that was the solution to everything, right? And as educators ourselves, working in higher education, having women breaking down the doors of universities is a wonderful thing. And it's a wonderful thing to have bright young women in your classrooms thinking about where they're going to go next after they leave us, and exercising their enormous brains doing work with us. The problem is not education, because we already have the most highly educated female prime age labour force in the OECD. We already have that, and we have the gaps still. So women are doing the work. Women are doing the things that they think are going to equip them in their future careers. But the future careers are not matching up to their expectations when they get out into the labour force.

Sandra So a good first step is maybe to have a better conversation about it.

Rae That might be an idea, yeah.

Kai Let's do that again next year then.

Rae Oh great! I'll try not to depress you then.

Kai Thank you so much, Rae.

Sandra Thank you.

Rae It's a pleasure.

Sandra And that's all we have time for today.

Kai See you soon.

Sandra On The Future...

Kai Next week.

Sandra This week?

Kai Yes, but next week.

Sandra On The Future, This Week. Next week. Thanks for listening.

Kai Thanks for listening.

Outro This was The Future, This Week made possible by the Sydney Business Insights team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week right here with us, our sound editor Megan Wedge, who makes us sound good and keeps us honest. Our theme music was composed and played live on a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online on Flipboard, Twitter or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news that you want us to discuss, please send them to sbi@sydney.edu.au.

Sandra Oh shit, we've done this entire podcast before.

Kai Last year, and we'll do it again next year.

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