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Your daughter will earn $1 million less than your son.

Ged Kearney

by GED KEARNEY

When anyone asked my daughters what they wanted to be when they grew up I would always tell them to answer by saying ‘to be paid the same as a man’.

Most people would in turn respond with a furrowed brow.

The gender pay gap was a rarely acknowledged problem 10 or 20 years ago and even now, while each year we have Equal Pay Day as a way to highlight the fact that the gap remains, not much has changed.

If it had, the day wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t be writing this.

The gap remains a persistently wide 17.5%,  despite the publicity Equal Pay Day gets each year as it highlights the fact that women have to work an extra 64-odd days more than a man every single year to earn the same money.

Yes, that’s right – in 2012, women working full-time earn on average 17.5% less than men who also work full-time.

The figure has widened from the 17.2% it sat on the previous two years, then taking women an extra 63 days to earn what their male counterparts earned.

There’s a myriad of reasons explaining why the gap is getting worse, not better, and why women face restricted access to equal employment and career development opportunities in the workplace, leading to just 12.5% of Top 200 ASX companies with female directors, 3% with CEOs, and 2% with female chairs.

The top explanations include that women still tend to be the primary caregiver in the majority of families. When they take time out of the workforce, the reality is that by the time they return they have skipped a pay increase or two and their male colleagues (who haven’t had a break) have climbed the promotion ladder ahead of them.

Making it worse, women don’t automatically start playing catch up when they get back to work. We know that women balancing work and family are continually overlooked for leadership positions just because they may also dare ask for flexibility in their work day so that they can manage their family’s needs as well as do their job.

There are other reasons for the pay gap – like the fact that women often leave their full time secure jobs after having children so that they can get ‘flexible’ hours via casual work or a part-time job, in lieu of the pay and career paths their previous role offered.

But frankly none of these so-called reasons are good excuses. And focusing on them will not help solve the problem.

As long as we talk only about explanations for the gap, the furrowed brows of confused acceptance will continue and women – no matter how smart, educated, skilled or experienced they are – will continue to have to work an extra two months of the year to bring home the same money as men.

In fact, in some industries, like finance, female workers would have to work for about 16 months to earn what men can in one year.

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I am tired of talking about excuses and I want to start creating solutions. The pay gap will only be narrowed through cultural change. And cultural change will only come about through affirmative action which makes people sit up, take notice – and take action.

Over the years there has been much debate within governments and women’s leadership groups about the concept of a quota system, which essentially would ensure companies have a certain number of women in leadership positions. Shock, horror, what a radical concept. Make a company promote a woman?!?! Whatever happened to merit?

That’s the usual response when this topic comes up. How about this – women are no less skilled, capable, qualified or good at their jobs than men; they usually just have to fight a hell of a lot harder to get to the same top rung on the corporate ladder than their male colleagues, so yeah, it’s time we made companies do something about it.

If you think about how much harder it is for a woman to earn the same as a man, they probably deserve to be paid double by the time they do catch them!

Another solution is through legislative reform and I’m pleased that the Government has taken some good steps in the right direction through the Fair Work Act. But it doesn’t go far enough. Thanks to the FWA, women can now request flexible working hours. Great. But an employer can refuse without having to give a reason. And women cannot appeal.

But solutions also need to start with women themselves. Women often talk about feeling invisible in the workplace, about being overlooked for senior roles. They need to be more assertive. Let’s stop complaining and start doing. Simple things like setting up a women’s committee at work, or women’s leadership groups in the community not only empower women, but they motivate and inspire them towards change.

I am truly tired of hearing things like ‘well women can’t expect to have it all’; ‘you can’t take time out of the workforce to have babies and expect to come back to work at the same level,’; or ‘if you want to leave work in time to get home and cook dinner and bathe the kids then you have to expect you won’t be able to climb the corporate ladder too’.

Equal Pay Day always reminds me of something former Victorian Premier Joan Kirner once said to me when I was talking about this issue with her. She was responding to my lament over the fact that too many people still considered affirmative action as too drastic and that it ignored merit.

In her words: “Do you think every man got to where they are based on merit? No, a lot got there because they are part of a boys’ club and it’s expected they will get there.”

As she said: “Women need to fight together too.”

Ged Kearney is the current president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. She was previously the Federal Secretary of the Australian Nursing Federation, having been a nurse since 1985. Ged will be online and responding to comments and queries through the day.

Have you ever felt ‘invisible’ in the workplace? Do you think men and women have equal opportunities at work?