Despite the fact more women are employed than ever before, a gender pay gap is still a reality in Australia. Most recent figures show a pay difference of around 23%, with men earning on average A$26,853 more than women a year.
But it’s not just the long-term financial consequences of the pay gap being felt by women. Evidence shows it also impacts on their physical and mental health.
A complex combination
The pay gap results from a complex combination of factors. Women are less often employed in the kind of private-sector jobs that provide opportunities for high-earning management roles, such as managing directors and CEOs.
They are more often employed in the public sector, in areas such as teaching, public service (the “professional” category in the figure), administration and sales – that carry a lower level of pay.
They are more likely to be in lower-status jobs that not only have lower pay but poorer working conditions, such as less autonomy and control over how, what, where and when work is undertaken. Low job control is a well established risk factor for poor physical and mental health.
Once employed, women are less likely to engage in wage bargaining. An Australian study compared the pay gap between female and male managers in Australia and found female managers earned, on average, about 27% less than their male counterparts.
Physical and mental health
A recent United States study investigated the role of the gender pay gap on depression and anxiety, matching men and women on education, occupation, age and other factors related to wages. It found women whose income was lower than their male counterparts had a nearly 2.5 times higher risk of depression. Their likelihood of anxiety was four times higher than that of male counterparts.
Extrapolating from their findings, the study’s authors suggested gender discrimination was likely a prominent explanation for mental health disparities between men and women. This is consistent with a large body of literature showing discrimination in a range of settings, including in workplaces, harms mental and physical health.
Discrimination results in higher levels of stress and poorer health behaviour such as alcohol and other substance use and abuse, as well as medication adherence. It also leads to fewer good health habits such as sleep, diet and exercise, as well as eating behaviours and attitudes known to cause poorer physical and mental health.