Mind the (Wage) Gap

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-By Robert Hoshowsky

In Australia, the wage disparity between men and women persist, and shows no signs of narrowing. In recent years, this persistent gender pay gap has increased, and is now around 17 per cent, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The difference in pay – which excludes part time, casual earnings, and overtime payments – is especially apparent in mining, where the difference continues to be felt despite increasing demand for resources for minerals and increasing profits.

Today, the gap in wages between women and men continues to rise, despite considerably more females than males attending college and university and going on to higher education which should, according to the norm, mean higher pay in the long run. Surprisingly this is not the case, as the gender pay gap is most pronounced in three sectors: finance at 32.2 per cent, health care and social assistance at 27.2 per cent, and mining at 22.7 per cent.

Pay inequality is not new in Australia, but it has become much more apparent in mining than ever before, and is at its highest point in over a quarter of a century. Women in various industries may receive more pay than before, but it is still far less than that of their male counterparts. In short, wages for women – especially in male-dominated sectors such as mining and construction – are seriously lagging, and recent figures peg females making 82.5 per cent of the wages paid to men, despite salary increases. While women working in the private sector fare somewhat better than their public sector counterparts when it comes to wage increases, the question remains: what are the underlying factors for the obvious gender pay difference, and what can be done to correct the problem?

Growing Wage Disparity

Part of the challenge is overcoming stereotypes about women and their work abilities. Comments found on online forums regarding the subject range from nothing less than outright chauvinistic – along the lines of “Darlings, if you want to earn as much as your male counterparts, then get your hands dirty,” – to a few praising women for their efforts. Men are making thousands more per year than women, with ABS figures revealing that the average salary for miners is $2,113.40 a week, considerably higher than in the health care sector, which scrapes by with an average weekly salary of just $717.50.

According to some, like the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, there are a number of factors for the glaring difference in pay, and fundamental structural factors need to be addressed before there will be a difference in wages between women and men.

To increase public awareness of the disparity between the sexes, The National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE) is promoting Equal Pay Day, which will fall on Tuesday, April 17 of this year. The April date is symbolic, as it serves to represent just how far into 2012 women must work to earn what men earned in 2011. Originated by the NCPE in 1996, Equal Pay Day serves to illustrate the dramatic difference between pay for women and men worldwide. Since it was founded in 1979, the NPCE – a coalition of women’s and civil rights organisations, labor unions, religious, professional, legal, and educational associations, commissions on women, state and local pay equity coalitions and individuals – has fought to increase awareness of the issue, and to eliminate sex-and race-based wage discrimination and achieve pay equity.

The issue of pay inequality is especially poor for women of colour, many of whom tend to be further divided into poor-paying sales, service and clerical jobs. Since women tend to earn less than men, they often have to work longer days to try to make up the same amount of pay. Despite a number of reports over the years on women’s earnings – such as the 2003 findings from the General Accounting Office, which examined 18 years’ worth of data – many have been unable to explain enormous earning gaps. Regardless of factors such as occupation, industry, race, marital status, and job tenure, many females are paid less than men simply because they are women.

Two-Speed Economy

In recent years, many of us have become familiar with the expression, “˜two-speed economy.’ While some countries in Europe are experiencing this economic trend, it is especially prevalent in Australia, and some believe the mining sector is largely responsible for women making less money than men.

The demand for Australia’s natural resources – such as coal, oil and gas – is growing. Used to fuel factories to make steel and other products in countries such as China and India, the demand is insatiable. As a result, parts of Australia are experiencing a mining boom, which has increased the value of the Australian dollar by almost 50 per cent since 2006, increased labour costs, and push up the wages of resource sector workers. However, the economic news is not good for states like Victoria, where unemployment is high and non-mining sectors such as tourism and retail are faltering; meanwhile, resource-rich Western Australia and Queensland continue to reap the benefits of the boom.

Two economies, two sexes. Mining and other resources have always been dominated by males, while women – who tend to work in sectors like retail compared to men – are faltering. In many ways, this clear division has been responsible for the massive gender pay gap in Australia. While men, especially those with experience, are being snapped up to work on mine sites and being very well compensated for it, women are continuing to find themselves being paid less while working in slowing sectors.

Some economists in fact believe Australia is experiencing a three-speed economy, with the nation’s eight jurisdictions now three categories, with the strongest state – Western Australia -in a class all its own. Indicators like economic growth, retail spending, equipment investment, unemployment, construction work, population growth, housing finance and dwelling commencements all help bolster the state’s strength. On many of the state’s mine sites, male workers earn almost double that of females working in the hospitality industry. As mine sites continue to grow, more and more males are heading off to work in mining projects, with some estimating that over 25 per cent of Perth’s airport traffic consists of passengers making their way to mining jobs.

Clearly, women are losing the wage race. Even in senior mining roles, women are often paid considerably less than their male counterparts. Recent reports from the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM) and the Federal Government inquiry into gender pay equity, “˜Make it Fair,’ revealed serious pay gaps at higher levels. Some estimates peg the difference in pay between men and women across all levels in the mining industry at 40 per cent. One of the reasons for the gap, according to the AusIMMs Women in Mining Committee, is the inherent bias towards women when it comes to high levels of responsibility. There is still the view that women are less valuable to employers because they may take time off to have children, and that females are more likely to become geologists, geoscientists, and consultants, which makes them likely to be laid off when there is a decline in exploration activity.

Fortunately some mineral councils are creating initiatives aimed at attracting more women to work in the mining sector, while a few companies are eyeing greater workplace flexibility which would allow women be both mine employees and mothers. One of the few standout companies is BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance Blackwater Mine, which operates a licensed child care facility, a plus when it comes to attracting and retaining female employees.

When it comes to filling the need for mine staff, perhaps some companies will choose to hire women locally and train them, rather than fly workers in from other countries, not only helping local Australians, but creating a viable solution to eliminating wage discrimination and closing the wage gap in the nation.

Strategic Resources

There are 17 classified rare earth elements, many of which have strategic purposes. Rare in name only, these elements are anything but scarce as they are found all over the world. The challenge rare earth elements pose is during extraction, as they exist in low concentrations and are difficult to separate from one another.

September 26, 2017, 7:18 PM AEST