Archive for February 2011
Published in Sunday Life, 24 October 2010. Copyright Rachel Hills 2010.
Actor Rosamund Pike’s new film charts one of women’s early battles for equal pay – but, as Rachel Hills finds, that fight is still not over, even now.
The year was 1968 and the working-class women of Dagenham, in London’s outer East, lived lives that would not look unfamiliar to many women today. They worked hard, sewing car seat covers at the local Ford assembly plant, and enjoyed a cheeky camaraderie with their co-workers. They juggled their jobs with caring for their children and families, sometimes feeling a tension between the two. They were also paid starkly less than their male equivalents, to the tune of 87 per cent of the rate of the plant’s worst paid male employees.
The fun and feisty new film Made In Dagenham tells their story: how an initial complaint over their work being classified as “unskilled” transformed into a full-scale campaign for equal pay that took them all the way to Westminster. “The film charts a point in history at which both women and men were having to grapple with big social changes,” says actress Rosamund Pike, who plays the elegant, Cambridge-educated wife of one of the Ford plant’s managers. “You really feel the beginnings an idea.”
While Pike’s character, Lisa, enjoys a very different economic position to many of the film’s other characters, Pike believes she shares many of their concerns. “At its heart, Made In Dagenham is a film about people fulfilling their potential, and equal pay is a critical component of that,” she says. “Getting the right pay for the work that you’re doing is a basic tenet of respect, regardless of your gender.”
Forty-two years after Dagenham and 38 years after Australian women officially achieved pay parity, workplace equality is back on the agenda in a big way.
Come January, Australia will finally have a paid parental leave scheme, supported by both major parties. The Australian Stock Exchange recently introduced new guidelines that ask publicly listed companies to disclose their gender diversity policies, and require them to explain why if they choose not to disclose. The Australian Services Union (ASU), meanwhile, is bringing to court the first equal pay case under the new Fair Work Act on the behalf of community workers, a female-dominated sector which has historically been underpaid. In June, the union staged the biggest Australia-wide rally of its kind since the 1970s.
It all adds up to what women’s leadership expert Jennifer Dalitz describes as a “perfect storm” for women in business. Journalist and commentator Anne Summers agrees. “I think there’s an incredible amount of awareness about these issues at the moment,” she says.
In some respects, the challenges facing women in the workplace today look very different to those of their 1960s counterparts. Back when the women of Dagenham were agitating for equal pay, the gap between men and women’s earnings was a matter of policy, enshrined in legislation and the industrial relationships system. Today, you won’t find many companies that purposefully pay their female employees less than their male staff. But with the average full-time female worker continuing to earn 18 per cent less than the average male employee, and women comprising just 10.1 per cent of board directors and three per cent of CEOs of Australia’s biggest companies, there are still some serious inequalities in outcomes.
“I wouldn’t want to say there’s been no change, because women can now expect paid maternity leave and flexible arrangements when they return to work, and that wasn’t the case [in the 1960s],” says Griffith University professor Glenda Strachan, who researches diversity and equal opportunity. “But there are still some intractable issues, particularly the proportion of women in senior positions and the equal pay gap.”
While researchers and activists are yet to identify an easy solution to the problem, they do agree on many of its causes.
One issue is the concentration of women and men in different industries. Barbara Pocock, Director of the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia, has written that Australia has one of the most sex-segregated labour markets in the industrialised world – despite initiatives over the past 20 years to encourage women to enter traditionally male-dominated industries such as computer science and engineering. Even within the same company, women tend to work in areas such as marketing and human resources, while men are more likely to occupy roles closer to what Dalitz describes as “the profit centre”.
Both types of segregation limit women’s earning potential. When head hunters are recruiting for top level business roles, they usually look for experience in finance or operations, explains Dalitz. “The minute women stream off to support roles, they cut themselves out of the running,” she says.
Then there is the matter of how jobs have historically been performed by women are valued. “Anything associated with care is generally underpaid in Australia: child care, aged care, nursing work,” observes Pocock. It is this undervaluing that lies at the heart of the ASU case. NSW secretary Sally McManus says there is a tendency to view these jobs as “women’s work” – soft, fuzzy professions that women would do for free anyway, whether at home or just for the love of it.
“For a lot of people, empathy is something that doesn’t have the same immediate, quantifiable value as, say, fixing a car,” says McManus. “But I can’t think of a harder job than working at a homeless shelter or a rape crisis centre [as some ASU members do], either in terms of the skills involved or in terms of the outcomes.”
Then there is the issue of confidence, which manifests itself in women being less likely to actively negotiate their salaries, to approach mentorship opportunities differently, and even to apply for fewer jobs than men do. As head of Westpac’s Women’s Markets Larke Riemer noted recently, many women won’t apply for a position if they possess only eight out of 10 of the skills listed, whereas “men will apply with six of the 10 [skills required] and get the job”.
“Even educated women start on a lower salary than men do because they quite often don’t ask [for more money],” says Jennifer Dalitz. “There’s a lot of pressure for girls to be polite and have good manners, there’s a lot more lenience for boys. It takes a lot to overcome that socialisation when you’re in the meeting room.”
Dalitz is a big advocate of women overcoming that socialisation and just asking. “I think women assume that there’s a very formal process that you go through to negotiate pay,” she explains. “From what I’ve observed, that’s absolutely not the case at all. You’re better off having the conversation on your way to a meeting than inside one, and you can’t leave it until your performance review meeting. You want it to be a casual, ongoing discussion, so that your manager is aware of your needs.”
Careers coach Jennie Hill believes there’s a lot to be said for women “putting their energy into the things they can control”. Legislative and attitude change are important, she says, but “if you’re waiting for legislative change, you’ll be waiting a long time. On a day to day basis, you should be looking at doing the things that you can control to get the success that you want.”
Among these is the importance of saying “yes” to opportunities when they arise – even if they take you out of your comfort zone.
“Even if someone just mentions an opportunity to you, you should look at it as them scoping you out for it. One of the tips I suggest to the women I speak to is that they learn to say ‘yes’ to everything – they can panic later. If you feel like you’re out of your depth, you can use Google, you can use a mentor, you can use a coach, you can speak to a friend. Even a provisional ‘yes’ will work in your favour. If your tendency is to say ‘no’ to opportunities, instead try ‘Yes, that sounds great, can I think about it?’”
Just as legislative change has yet to yield the desired results, however, there are limits to the effectiveness of these individual-based actions. As Pocock notes, it’s when women have children that gap between men and women really starts to broaden. Even women who do very well with pay and promotions at the beginning of their careers often find their opportunities narrow after they have children.
“If you’re out of the workforce on parental leave you’ll probably miss at least one annual review period, bonus payment or increase in wages,” explains Dalitz. “What’s more, many women find that when they return to work they’re put on the mummy track of part-time or projects roles until a permanent role with a set of KPIs can be placed.”
Dalitz’s observations mirror the experiences of Mira Smoljko, who left the corporate job she’d held for 13 years when her second child was two. Mira describes herself as a hard worker who was passionate about her career: she worked right up until she gave birth, remained accessible via email while she was on parental leave, and returned to the office six months later. Following the birth of her second child, she even tried to negotiate to return to work early on a part-time basis, with limited success. She says she had “no idea” what she was in for when she returned.
“I thought, ‘I’m a hard worker and my results speak for themselves’. I was first to market with a lot of initiative and campaigns and I realised ‘wow, that doesn’t count for anything’. At the same time, my friends without children still got to see their careers progress,” she says.
“I felt like I was being forced to choose between being a parent and doing the job 200 percent. I remember saying to my husband, ‘You haven’t missed a beat at work, but my world is facing an upheaval unless I pretend I don’t have children.’”
Like many women in her position, Mira ended up leaving the company to branch out on her own, first as a small business consultant and now running a shop specialising in shoes for women with larger feet. She questions the perception that women become less committed to their jobs after they have children. “I’m doing this on my own and juggling my three children at the same time, and I’ve still managed to get a business off the ground. Having children doesn’t make women worse employees – if anything, I think we just get sharper and more efficient. It’s the corporate structure that holds us back.”
It’s easy to put these last vestiges of gender inequality down to personal choice – indeed, you will find plenty of people doing just that in any online forum discussing issues like equal pay or workplace flexibility. If women want to be paid the same amount of money as men, they should work in the same industries men do. If they want to be CEOs or partners at corporate law firms, they should be prepared to work 80-hour weeks. “The rhetoric around choice is very, very present,” says Pocock.
However, Pocock argues that “the structures around those choices don’t give women an effective choice at all.”
“The reality is workplace practices can change to accommodate working carers and different professional paths. We need to accept that women are different to men and offer the flexibility that means that women can lead on doable terms rather than on male terms.”
Claire Braund, executive director of Women On Boards (www.womenonboards.org.au), agrees. “There is no choice. And even if there were, how is a choice between having a baby and having a job any good for society? Surely the two things society wants people to do is to have children and to work. But for some reason they make these two things mutually exclusive.”
The irony is that making the changes necessary to make the most of professional women’s talents need not be too difficult at all – and would have serious benefits for employers who took action. As Mira points out, “a lot of these women are raring to go back to the position they were in before”, and the period intensive child rearing doesn’t last forever. Rather than viewing the onset of parenthood as a permanent downshift, she suggests, it might better to view it as “a transitional period where they slowly build back up [to their former working capacity].”
“At the end of the day you’ve lost nothing and you’ve retrained someone who’s got decades of experience, and they give it back in spades,” she says. “Everybody wins.”