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We’re still waiting on equal pay for nurses – it’s time for a change: opinion

The United National International Equal Pay Day, celebrated on 18 September, was a reminder to all employers that the gender pay gap is an ongoing problem in Australia across professions, including in nursing and healthcare.

More needs to be done to close that gap.

Currently, Australia’s national gender pay gap is 14.2 per cent.1 As of May 2021, women’s average weekly ordinary full time earnings across all industries and occupations was $1,575.00 compared to men’s average weekly ordinary full time earnings of $1,837.00.

This means that on average, women earn $261.50 less than men.

In the healthcare and social assistance sector, which includes nurses, the gap is even wider. Women’s average weekly ordinary full-time earnings in healthcare was just $1,570 compared to $1,978 for men, a gap of $408.50. This is a damming statistic given that the healthcare sector is the nation's biggest employer.

In terms of nurses’ salaries, the gap isn’t quite so wide. We know from the most recent ABS data available that the average weekly total cash earnings for female registered nurses was $1,365.90 in 2018. That compared to men registered nurses at $1,493.80, a gap of around $128.

This gap exists despite the nursing profession being the largest segment of the workforce in the healthcare sector, and it is predominantly female.

Approximately 87 per cent of all nurses and midwives are women. Many work part-time and a significant number stop working to care for children during their careers. These breaks and the need to work part-time while caring for families mean that female nurses can be economically disadvantaged over their working lives.

It is important for all employers in the healthcare sector to design jobs and career paths for nurses that encompass flexible work and encourage an organisational culture that supports flexible working practices or part-time work for both women and men.

Supporting pregnant women and mothers returning to work to be valued members of the workforce with access to the same opportunities as their colleagues is important too, as is training managers in how to manage employees who adopt flexible work practices. In Victoria, Western Health offers registered nurses who have had a period of absence from the clinical setting a ‘Nurses Refresher Course’. This course is designed to help nurses to update their knowledge, skills and build their confidence to return to work.

There also needs to be a shift in culture and policy to support female nurses in management roles following a period of leave to continue in their careers when they decide to return to work. More training opportunities and support need to be provided to female nurses who return to work part-time. This is to ensure that they are not disadvantaged in their career progression. Women are more likely than men to work part-time or flexibly because they still undertake most of society’s unpaid caring work and, as a result, may find it difficult to access suitable senior roles.

Culturally, there may need to be a shift in the direction to part-time management positions in healthcare from full-time positions to allow females to participate more in part-time management positions and job sharing.

The disrupted work lives of women who have children, or who work part-time, also impacts the accumulation of superannuation. This work pattern frequently results in women on average having much less superannuation than men despite living longer. The average life expectancy for women is 85 years compared to 80.9 for men.2 In 2017-18 the average super account balance for people aged 15 and over was $168,500 for men and $121,300 for women, according to ABS data.

So the pay gap needs to be closed.

The onus is on healthcare employers to conduct a gender pay audit to help identify and address discriminatory pay, so women are equally compensated and valued. Employers can also establish goals, strategies and actions to manage and improve gender pay equity in their organisation.

Under the Federal law, the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012, large employers (non-public sector employers with 100 or more employees in their corporate structure) and registered higher education providers have to report to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) annually on a set of gender equality indicators. Employers with over 500 employees must also meet certain minimum standards, including having a policy or strategy in certain areas, to support gender equality. It’s also unlawful under the Fair Work Act to discriminate on the basis of sex.

Various state, territory and federal anti-discrimination laws also make it unlawful for an employer to discriminate on the grounds of gender about the terms and conditions of employment, which includes pay and other benefits.

The UN International Equal Pay Day is celebrated on 18 September each year and it builds on the United Nations' commitment to human rights and against all forms of discrimination, including discrimination against women and girls.

Globally, women are paid less than men, with the gender pay gap estimated at 23 per cent. According to the United Nations,3 gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls continues to be held back owing to the persistence of historical and structural unequal power and economic relations between women and men.

Progress on narrowing that gap has been slow. Women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn for work of equal value – with an even wider wage gap for women with children. At this rate, the UN estimates it will take the next 257 years to close the global gender pay gap.

It’s time that these imbalances are reversed, in Australia and worldwide.

Caglayan Yasan is the VU Online Master of Nursing Academic Course Coordinator. She graduated as a registered nurse in 2003. She commenced her career at VU as a clinical facilitator in 2015.

1. https://www.wgea.gov.au/publications/australias-gender-pay-gap-statistics

2. https://www.abs.gov.au/media-centre/media-releases/life-expectancy-continues-increase-australia

3. https://www.un.org/en/observances/equal-pay-day

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