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Coronavirus pandemic won’t fix women’s pay in health

A nurse working at St Vincents Hospital's new Covid-19 testing clinic at East Sydney Community and Arts Centre, Darlinghurst on 17th April 2020. (Photo Louise Kennerley via Getty)
A nurse working at St Vincents Hospital's new Covid-19 testing clinic at East Sydney Community and Arts Centre, Darlinghurst on 17th April 2020. (Photo Louise Kennerley via Getty)

Australia’s healthcare workers are a valuable part of society, but don’t expect that to translate to better pay outcomes for women because of a global pandemic.

That’s the view of Health Services Union (HSU) national secretary Lloyd Williams, who has told Yahoo Finance that federal, state, and territory governments are taking advantage of a largely female dominated workforce to hinder bargaining attempts for better pay.

“The bargaining system is stacked against health, aged care and disability workers due to their emotional labour and connection to their work,” he said.

“This limits their preparedness to take action like walking off the job, particularly now during a pandemic.

“They are also not allowed to bargain together across the whole sector with multiple employers and the funder of services, being the government, is not involved.

“Even throughout the private sector, workers struggle to get much better pay because businesses are under pressure to pay less as their underlying funding support comes from governments,” he said.

The Australian healthcare and social assistance sector, is largely government funded and employs the most women in full and part-time roles of any industry.

As it stands, the sector also has the largest gender pay gap with men working full-time earning $1,886 on average per week versus $1,466 for women, based on Australian Bureau of Statistics data.

One of the hopes raised by the pandemic is that it may lead to a narrowing of the gender pay gap in the health sector if the wages of front line workers get a boost from government funding.

But that is looking unlikely. The New South Wales and Queensland governments have already flagged delayed in annual wage increases for public sector workers including those in health.

Tania Tonkin who is a financial planner and director at dmca Advisory, works with a lot of clients within the health sector and doesn’t think they’re paid enough.

“To be able to pay them more is one thing, but if we could also provide them with more salary packaging benefits, such as tax incentives, we could ensure they are getting more in their pocket at the end of the day.

She adds that achieving gender equality in terms of pay may always be an issues within health and needs to be worked through irrespective of Covid-19.

“I still see many women in this sector who find it more of a challenge to negotiate their salary with their employers than men.

“It might be because there are more men in traditional leadership roles than women or it could be other factors like culture.”

Women comprise 80% of the health care workforce and 70% of its managers, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).

Libby Lyons, Director of WGEA says the discrepancy in the health sector is largely responsible for widening the gender pay gap.

“We really need the health sector to have a good hard look at themselves. I think the sector believes that because they're female-dominant, they don’t have a problem — that is absolutely not true,” she maintains.

While this dynamic is unlikely to change anytime soon, Mr Williams doesn’t believe the answer is hiring more men as carers or more women as senior leaders.

“I don’t think that is entirely right,” he says. “I see men already in the health and social care sector accepting lower pay in carer roles.

“My experience is that men who work in health and disability services have the same emotional commitment and attachment to residents and clients as women do and that is one of the key things that drive them to do what they do.

“While we must advance more women in senior roles its primarily the lack of structural bargaining power, the de-valuing of care work, insecure work and the inability to involve the funder of services that is failing gendered workplaces and low paid workers,” says Mr Williams.

Bianca Hartge-Hazelman is the author of the Financy Women’s Index and founder of women’s money website She is also a proud contributor and supporter of Yahoo Finance’s Women’s Money Movement. Join the movement here.

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