How JSA will ‘count ALL women in’

In 1907, the equivalent of the then, Fair Work Commissioner, Justice Higgins made a landmark ruling to establish a minimum wage. It had a significant impact on Australian wages and labour practices, shaping the economic landscape for years to come. However, it came with a catch – it wasn’t for everyone. It was established for unskilled labourers (all men) to support their wives and up to three children. This pivotal moment became known as the “Harvester decision” and it was the start of ‘counting women out’ of the world of work and pay in Australia. 

Shortly after, in 1912, Justice Higgins rejected an equal pay application for ‘a fair and reasonable wage’ for a female worker; deciding that equal pay wasn’t appropriate for supposedly unequal work.

More than 50 years later in 1969, the then Fair Work Commission equivalent, took tentative steps towards counting women in – but only for 85% of what men were paid. It was now law that employers could pay women 25% less than men for performing equal work. It was 1974 before a historic judgement turned equal pay for equal work into Australian law.

But Australian women didn’t get access to equal pay in 1974. Neither did they in 1999, 2009, or 2012 when the Australian Parliament legislated different ways for equal pay and gender equality in the workplace. 

It took more than 100 years to effectively overturn the Harvester decision, when in 2022, gender equality became an objective of the Fair Work Act and a requirement to consider in any minimum wage and award decisions. Given the recent WGEA data, it is clear we’ve got some way to go before the matter of equal pay is addressed in full. 

Gender also isn’t the only factor when breaking down barriers for those traditionally excluded from the workforce. These barriers are even more complex for First Nations, migrant, culturally and linguistically diverse, LGBTQI+ and disabled women.

In 1984, Australia’s first Sexual Discrimination Act was passed, making sexual harassment illegal for the first time in Australia. Alongside this, a range of anti-discrimination acts to tackle ageism, racism and disability have been legislated between 1975 and now. 

Separately each of these acts are designed to improve the inclusivity and diversity in our labour market but as history as shown, laws can’t always fix the intersectional and complex challenges disadvantaged cohorts face when attempting to enter, remain and thrive in the workforce. 

This year, the UN recognises International Women’s Day, with the theme of ‘Count her In: Invest in Women, Accelerate Progress’. As we reflect on the long road to get us to here, it’s timely to consider how we can accelerate our progress. 

How can we overcome more than 100 years of not counting women, especially diverse women, in, in the labour market? How will we measure our progress? What evidence do we have, what questions should be asked, and what data do we need to investigate? 

This is where Jobs and Skills Australia comes in. One of our roles is to analyse and improve the work and education outcomes for disadvantaged Australians. We’re in a unique position to advocate for, and inform, policy reforms aimed at improving the economic empowerment and workforce participation of disadvantaged groups. A bonus is that this will also go a long way to meeting Australia’s skills needs. 

We need all types of Australians to be ‘counted in’ in economic and job opportunities. JSA does this counting - we provide detailed, evidence-based research and advice on how our training systems and labour market are gendered, and what opportunities there are to improve equity outcomes for all Australians.

We’re committed to understanding how to improve labour market participation, reduce skill shortages, and address other workforce challenges, including the drivers and impacts of horizontal gender (and racial) segregation on all the above. 

We’re committed to counting all women in.

Our annual Skills Priority List (SPL) has reinforced what we already knew; there are major gender skews in many industries, and many of those, also have skills shortages and big pay imbalances. We need to correct this imbalance to address skills shortages, or risk missing important national targets such as our Clean Energy goals. 

Analysis of the 2023 SPL outcomes show that 54% of male-dominated occupations and 40% of female-dominated occupations (i.e. where the dominant gender makes up at least 80% of the workforce) were in shortage. In contrast, only 25% of occupations with less systematic gender skew were in shortage.

Products such as VET National Data Asset (VNDA) examines obstacles keeping women (and other disadvantaged cohorts) from accessing education and training, preventing their advancement into leadership and management roles. 

VNDA also helps us unlock what future industries and occupations might look like from a demographic and pay perspective. It provides a comprehensive view of how tertiary qualifications can help women, First Nations people or those with a disability, to achieve economic independence. 

So called ‘soft skills’ have historically been under-valued and under-recognised because of their association with women’s work and supposedly natural attributes. This has given rise to industries with a higher proportion of women, such as Early Childhood Educators, to be largely under-valued and under-recognised. Our Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) capacity study is one of our many activities that explore these issues and the fundamental links this has to low pay, award dependence and job mobility. 

We’re not going to wait another hundred years for meaningful change. We’re committed – and legislated - to count women in – especially women who face extra barriers like First Nations women, those with a disability, LGBTQI+, migrants and culturally and linguistically diverse women. 

We’ll use all our evidence-based research to inform policy and help Australia’s decision makers to make the most inclusive choices. And in doing so, we aim to accelerate Australian women’s economic empowerment through equal access to employment, education, and training pathways. 

Dr Emma Cannen

Dr Emma Cannen is a national level research and policy leader with a career of over 15 years working in roles across government, industry, unions, and academia. Emma is currently directing JSA’s VET workforce study and the Capacity Study Development and Support team. These large-scale research studies make policy recommendations to Government to meet Australia’s critical workforce needs and skills gaps. The first study JSA and Emma delivered was: The Clean Energy Generation: workforce needs for a Net Zero economy.

Emma has a PhD in international relations and in past roles, campaigned for pay equity legislative reform and equal pay; translated Indonesian as an intelligence analyst; and worked across various levels of education policy. She also taught at the tertiary level too – lecturing in global politics, economics, sociology, and communications. 

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