COMMENT

A sense of intense frustration arose yesterday as I read about David McLean's apparent surprise to discover that massive gender inequities characterise his organisation's remuneration structures.

I, forone, was not startled by the news that there is a 30 per cent gender pay gap at the bank, or indeed any bank or financial institution. Let's get crazy honest for a moment and postulate that a gap exists to a greater or lesser degree in a significant proportion of all firms, companies and organisations in the country.

I would be prepared to bet McLean dinner that the figure did not come as a shocking revelation to women employed at Westpac, past or present. It beggars belief for any modern CEO to infer that he was blithely unaware of the extent to which males in any role are habitually valued and rewarded more highly than females.

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Instead, McLean seems keen to divert our attention to the bank's possible - the article is contradictory on the point - compliance in 2019 with a piece of legislation that has been on the statute books for 47 years.

The Equal Pay Act 1972 requires that men and women doing work necessitating the same, or substantially similar, skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions be paid the same.

It is remarkably telling that almost 50 years after this country enacted the protection into law, compliance is being held out as some sort of accomplishment worthy of commendation. It is not. It should be a matter of course, and we are falling far short of any marker of success in terms of genuine equality.

Pseudo wringing of hands about the alleged inability to attract women into positions of middle to senior management is equally infuriating.

Firstly, the gender pay gap starts well before candidates are likely to be in line for promotion to management. It starts early, often after the first financial year of employment, and is generally perpetuated after that, growing like an imperceptible tumour that gets more and more difficult to excise.

Further, the gap is not, contrary to popular opinion, explicable only by reference to women "taking time off to have babies". Those women who choose to take time out for maternity are frequently behind before they leave, with their absence exacerbating rather than creating the issue.

Those women who do not have children, or take time off, rarely maintain pay parity with their male peers. Secondly, is it perhaps all due to the vaguely-described "occupational segregation" which is "hard to change"?

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There is no denying that we are all subject to a degree of cultural conditioning about the roles that might suit different types of people. Certainly, it can be hard to envisage a successful future in an occupation where there is no relatable role model, much less an internal mentor in a position of power willing to advocate for your advancement.

However, any suggestion that we cannot choose to meaningfully impact outdated norms today, tomorrow and next week is manifestly defeatist. Generational change, as is often espoused, is merely a euphemism for decades' worth of procrastination and power protectionism.

If it is imagined that there are no women out there right now ready to step up to the plate in all manner of roles, adjust the mind-set and look again.

Any suggestion that we cannot choose to meaningfully impact outdated norms today, tomorrow and next week is manifestly defeatist. Photo / 123RF
Any suggestion that we cannot choose to meaningfully impact outdated norms today, tomorrow and next week is manifestly defeatist. Photo / 123RF

So what is happening? The answer is systemic and ongoing bias. Study after study shows that regardless of their education, skill set or experience levels, women are frequently overlooked or undervalued in preference to male candidates.

Put shortly; it does not much matter what they bring to the table, or who is assessing them, implicit bias as to what women can do and perceptions of how they operate result in outcomes that skew heavily in favour of male applicants.

A half-day course in unconscious bias training will not remedy the problem. Placing a "gender equality tick" rider on your email sign off is equally ineffectual.

We do not want to hear that organisations are trying, and hope to do better in the future; it is a muchheard refrain that is stale, weak and acutely inadequate.

Stop investing in telling us what we already know because we live the gender pay gap, the restricted opportunities, the networking exclusions and the promotion obstacles every day.

If you harbour any illusions that success for women in the workplace requires delivering super-excellence notwithstanding that they operate in a world designed almost exclusively for men, I urge you to review the recent and widely-acclaimed "Invisible Women" by Caroline Criado-Perez.

We do not need yet more definitions of the problem; we need action. Focus on the practical steps that can be taken right now and if change is genuinely desired, effect it without delay.

Use the available gender-neutral software tools for the formulation of your employment advertisements; assess all candidates for employment on gender and ethnicity blind bases; closely examine your criteria for promotion and remuneration to ensure that these are visible to all and truly neutral in terms of rendering an impartial and fair assessment; conduct equal pay audits; and properly support women and minorities who land in straight, white male-dominated domains.

Calculate the pay differences and fix them. If men chafe at the possibility that a concerted push for the advancement of women may come at their expense (although it need not be a zero-sum game approach), my sympathies are limited.

Male advancement has been achieved at the expense of women for centuries, and a righting of the balance is long overdue. Narrowing the pay gap is not equality; it needs to be eliminated.

Cathy Murphy. Photo / Supplied
Cathy Murphy. Photo / Supplied

The suggestion that one way to look to increase accountability for these issues is public reporting of a company or organisation's internal statistics is encouraging.

Westpac's openness about its data is refreshing, but the subject matter is neither new nor unexpected.

I wholeheartedly agree that the more honest, assessable information that is made open, the better. The suggestion does not, however, go nearly far enough as regulations should require mandatory reporting with the gender pay gap also broken down by age, disability, ethnicity, LGBTQ+ and part-time status.

I disagree with McLean that legislating "just becomes a compliance thing" because I strongly believe that there should be legal repercussions for failing to meet equal-pay requirements.

Much like our health and safety regime, individuals should not face the burden of initiating private legal action to achieve enforcement of such rules.

There is so much to be done that aspirational targets such as 50/50 representation in
another five years are nowhere near enough for any organisation that genuinely wants equality.

There may be those who will say that my article is ill-judged, and that criticism of a major corporation promoting transparency will only serve to set the process back further. In reality, the longer we go on applauding partial measures, welcoming platitudes regarding vague future action, or generally accepting that "something is better than nothing", the longer the inequities will continue.

Happy Suffrage Day McLean – 126 years on and we still have to fight tooth and nail for half of the population to be treated like the equal human beings that we are.

- Cathy Murphy is a barrister for High St Chambers.