The Gender Pay Gap: the solution is simple right?

This week the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA; the government body that is tasked with improve gender equity in the workplace) announced that the nation’s gender pay gap had barely budged over the past 6 months and remains at around 14%. You can read the full fact sheet here.

As usual the common commentary about how the gender pay gap is a myth, that it can’t possibly exist because it’s illegal to pay women and men differently for the same work, that it’s because women choose to work in lower paying roles yada yada yada.

The fact is that fixing the gender pay gap sounds deceptively simple. Just pay men and women the same for the same work right?!? Well yeah, that’s a good start, but the gender pay gap is a hideously complex issue with very few quick fixes available.

The first thing to note is that there are two distinct pay gaps that WGEA asks organisations to measure and both have their distinct challenges.


As the name suggests, this gap assesses whether men and women in the same job roles are being paid equally. And if you do happen to find a gap, all you have to do is just give the woman more money and the problem is solved! Simple right??

Sadly it really isn’t that simple. There is so much complexity within organisations that finding true like-for-like comparisons can be hard.

I worked in a law firm and with such a clear hierarchical structure you’d think it would be easy to simply compare male ‘Lawyers’ with female ‘Lawyers’ or male ‘Associates’ with female ‘Associates’. But consider, some Lawyers & Associates:

  • manage offices while some don’t;

  • have 3 years’ experience, some have 15;

  • manage teams of 5 people, some manage teams of 40 and some manage none; and

  • work in niche areas of law while some work in more common areas of law.

The factors identified above justifiably impact the remuneration each individual receives so, despite having identical job titles, the range of salaries within a category can be significant. And if you start to try to categorise employees by all the different variables to find true ‘like-for-likes’, you basically just end up with a useless list of individual employees and their individual salaries.

Don’t get me wrong, like-for-like analysis is critical, and you can find some really easy wins by conducting it. It's also really important to monitor over time and during remuneration processes to ensure there is no gender pay creep. However, it can be really complicated to determine whether or not true like-for-like gaps exist in an organisation if there aren’t super sophisticated structures in place that allow for highly detailed analysis.


This analysis compares the overall average salary for men to the overall average salary for women. This for me is the really interesting measure and the one that we as a society need to focus on shifting.

The overall gap looks at structural pay inequality within an organisation. I’ve created a diagram below to explain:

The diagram shows, in a very simplistic view, the annual salaries for men and women in an organisation. You can see that the top paid men and women both earn $200,000, however the lowest paid men earn $100,000 while the lowest paid women earn $50,000.

This organisation may have no like-for-like gender pay gaps, but they will still have a sizeable overall gap because of their structure. Having a large number of women at the lowest pay bracket within an organisation means that the average salary for female employees will always be less than the average salary for men.

But no organisation would have such a skewed structure right?

Wrong. Think of a law firm again; lots of legal roles occupied by a mix of men and women, but almost exclusively the lower paid Legal Assistant roles are held by women. I’m sure there are other organisations like hospitals, retail organisations and not-for-profits that would have similar structures.

The overall gender pay gap is, in my opinion, the toughest yet most important gap to close. Our society is so incredibly gendered that change seems almost impossible.

The only way to close an overall gender gap is to ensure men and women are equally represented in the lower paid roles, but how do you achieve that in practice? How can men be encouraged into these roles when for so long society has unconsciously reinforced that legal assistants, personal assistants, nurses, child care workers, administrators etc. are ‘women’s’ jobs?

I think some of it comes down to language used to describe these types of job roles.

As an experiment I took a random sample of 15 job ads for Legal Assistants in Brisbane and ran them through a gendered language tool. Unsurprisingly 11 of the job ads were assessed as being feminine-coded with just 4 assessed as neutral. Not to mention that at least 6 of the ads were titled ‘Legal Secretary’ or referenced the word ‘secretarial’ in the ad text which are not traditionally terms that would cause men to flock to apply. You can try running your own job ads through the tool here.

The structural inequity that drives the overall pay gap won’t start to shift, particularly in lower paid roles, until we as a society start changing the way we describe and define job roles OR until we stop seeing particular words like compassion, share, trust, interpersonal, empathy etc. as ‘feminine’.

And it’s not just job ads, it's how they are portrayed and discussed in the media and how we talk about these types of roles day-to-day that also has a huge influence.

Look, I definitely don’t think that just changing the words we use in job ads is going to fix the gender pay gap. My how I wish it were that simple! But we do need to get past the overly simplistic view that the solution to the gender pay gap is just paying men and women the same if they have the same job. We need to start having more complex conversations around gender stereotypes and gendered language in lower paid roles if we really want to start to minimise the gender pay gap.

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