The cost of womanhood









By Jane Gilmore

The official gender pay gap in Australia is 16% (Workplace Gender Equality Agency). That seemingly small number adds up to a gigantic difference between men and women, especially as women age.

Instead of dry numbers and statistics, let’s apply them to the lives of two average, middle class, white Australians – John and Mary – to see how economic discrimination affects women’s lives.

John and Mary met at university and they quickly found work after graduating at 23. John’s accounting job paid $48,000 and Mary’s administration job $40,000. It’s a relatively small difference in wage so far.

At 28 they married and were both promoted. John’s salary increased to $62,000 – he’d put in a lot of overtime and got yearly bonuses worth $10,000 over five years. Mary’s salary was $49,000, but she didn’t receive any bonuses or overtime as they are rarely available to admin staff.

They bought a small two bedroom place close to the CBD, for $350,000 and, by the time Mary was pregnant, John got another promotion. His salary was now $68,000 with annual $5,000 performance bonus. Meanwhile, Mary’s employer offered her 6 weeks paid maternity leave and a guarantee that she could come back to her job after 12 months.

When it was time for Mary to return to work, they decided they didn’t want their toddler in full time childcare – Mary could work a part time job and look after the child because John didn’t want to reduce his working hours with a looming promotion. Mary didn’t have any real prospects for promotion after being away from work for a year, so she returned to work 2 days per week.

When the promotion finally came, John’s salary jumped to $90,000 per year with $20,000 worth of stock options. Meanwhile, Mary was earning $19,000 a year.

They sold their apartment and bought a house in the suburbs for $900,000 when Mary got pregnant again. When the baby arrived, they decided the cost of childcare for two children under five would be almost as much as she could earn working two days a week. John was spending so much time at work that Mary quit her job so she could do all the work needed to run a house and look after two children.

By the time the third baby was born, they were both 35. John was earning $105,000 plus options and bonuses, while Mary had no income, no superannuation contributions and no career.

For the next five years Mary stayed home with the children. Because he had Mary at home to make sure all the daily tasks were managed, John could devote his energy into his job. He had a clean, comfortable home, good food, happy children and a fun social life.

John continued to work hard and was made a partner at his firm. His salary went up to $130,000 per year and they had paid off close to one third of their mortgage.

When they were both 42 and all the kids were in school, Mary got a casual job as a receptionist in the local medical centre for 20 hours per week with no paid holidays or sick leave. While her starting salary was $19,000, the same as it had been ten years before, John’s salary increased to $150,000 per year, plus bonuses and partnership equity.

By this time, John and Mary started drifting apart. They were fighting a lot and John was often absent. Mary thought he might be having an affair, she was lonely and felt that he didn’t notice how much work she did to care for him and their children. John felt that she had no understanding or appreciation for how hard he worked for the family.

Like one third of married couples in Australia, John and Mary eventually separated. John’s salary was $160,000 by then. Mary was still working 20 hours per week at the medical centre, but her salary hadn’t changed.

After selling their house for $1,200,000 and sorting out their remaining $550,000 mortgage, they both had $325,000. John’s superannuation balance at the time was $200,000, while Mary’s was $43,000. As part of the settlement, she received $80,000 of John’s super balance.

The children stayed with John one weeknight and every second weekend but stayed with Mary the rest of the time. John paid Mary $39,000 per year in child support.

Mary asked for more hours at the medical centre, which increased her salary to $25,000, but she still had no paid leave.

John used his share of the money from the sale of the house and bought another for $1,000,000. Mary couldn’t get a mortgage because she only had casual work and it didn’t pay well enough to make repayments on a house big enough for her and three children. She put the money in the bank, but often had to draw on it to pay living costs like rent, which was close to 40% of her total income.

At 50, John paid off most of his mortgage using bonuses from work and selling a few stocks. His salary had gone up to $180,000 and his expenses decreased considerably after divorce. He increased his super contributions to 15%.

Mary was still working at the medical centre, her salary had increased to $28,000 but her rent had gone up and she had had to move house twice. The money in the bank had gone down to $250,000.

Two years later the medical centre was sold and Mary lost her job. Her two youngest children were still living with her so she still needed to rent a two bedroom house. She drew the remaining money from the sale of the house for living costs.

Mary couldn’t get another permanent job. Despite having a degree, she had spent too long out of the workforce and her job at the medical centre didn’t offer any ability to increase her skills or get promoted. She got a few causal jobs through a temp agency, but most employers wanted younger worker for reception and admin jobs, which was the only work she knew how to do. She got around $350 a week from Centrelink, and John was still paying $30,000 per year in child support.

When they were both 55, John was earning $250,000 per year, and had increased his super contributions to 25%.  Mary still didn’t have a job and John no longer needed to pay child support because all their children were over 18. She moved to a one bedroom flat and continued to use the money left in the bank to cover the difference between Centrelink payments and living costs.

John retired at 65, he had paid off his house and his superannuation balance was $1,000,000.

Mary’s superannuation balance was $139,000, and she had nothing left from the sale of the house. She was still renting the one bedroom flat, but was struggling to pay rent on a pension of $400 per week. She was in housing stress and had no prospects of changing her finances.

She would live in hardship for the rest of her life.

But this is no story – it’s fact. John and Mary are typical Australians. Gendered roles and discrimination have a direct impact on women’s livelihood. It impacts on the employment we’re able to find, the wages we draw, job security, our level of superannuation, the unpaid labour expected from us…and then we’re told anyone who works hard enough can avoid this.

It’s time we stop avoiding the real cost of being a woman.

The numbers are drawn from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Centrelink payment rates in 2017, Department of Social Services child support rates, and Australian Bureau of Statistics gender indicator data.

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