Women who have jobs that are stereotypically considered “women’s work”, such as secretaries, childcare workers and nurses, are happy with the type of work they do but not with their pay, new research from the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre shows. It draws on answers collected from between 2001 and 2013 in the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey (HILDA) and the 2006 Census.
The HILDA survey asks people to rate their overall job satisfaction and also how satisfied they are with specific aspects of their jobs. This includes the type of work they do, pay, hours, and flexibility available to balance work and non-work commitments.
The research also showed that women don’t always want these roles when they start out. The research showed women and men have much the same job preferences at a younger age.
Only once women are married and have dependent children does this change. Women start to prefer work with the flexibility to juggle home and work life commitments. This coincides with a shift in their sense of identity, where women tend to emphasise their role as a mother over other roles after child-bearing.
The research shows that not only is occupational segregation real in Australia, it also aligns with the traditional “male breadwinner/female homemaker” model. There is also evidence that social norms are a key driver of this.
Women were found to be most satisfied with their hours of work when they work part-time, while men are satisfied the most with full-time work. Men are, on average, dissatisfied with hours worked in jobs stereotyped as “women’s work” where part-time work is common. However, both men and women appreciate the greater flexibility available in those jobs to balance work and family commitments.
Women make up over 90% of personal assistants, secretaries, receptionists, child-care workers and nurses. At the other end of the spectrum, there is barely a woman to be found among bricklayers, carpenters, mechanics or plumbers.
They also tend to be concentrated within occupations that are not particularly highly paid and characterised by part-time, casual and more precarious working arrangements.
One argument for this pattern of employment is the notion that women have a stronger preference than men for certain types of work. Specifically, women prefer to work in occupations that utilise “feminine” skills associated with the traditional household division of labour, such as caring, cooking and cleaning.
Alternatively, career paths can be associated with a particular gender through history, social and institutional norms, channelling women into particular occupations.
Chief suspect among these social norms is this “male breadwinner” model. The man’s career is seen as the primary source of income within families, and the woman’s career is secondary while she takes on the bulk of the child-care and housework. It is argued that the male breadwinner model remains ingrained in Australian culture and has been reinforced in the 2000s by changes to the tax and family benefits system.
The research used census data to indicate the proportion of women working in each occupation. Of particular note, women working in more feminised occupations are strongly dissatisfied with their pay; the few males working in those occupations are even more dissatisfied. This strongly contradicts the view of some that women’s jobs are relatively better paid in the Australian labour market.
There is a persistent gender-wage gap in Australia. Women in full-time non-managerial jobs currently earn around 20% less than their male counterparts. Economists can account for only a portion of this wage gap by differences in productivity-related characteristics, with the residual attributed to gender discrimination.
If women are simply choosing to work in occupations that use feminine skills such as nursing and child-care because they prefer this type of work, and this work is not highly valued in the labour market, then we would not consider this to be discrimination.
However, if such jobs have lower pay because they are highly stereotyped and women face exclusion from higher-paid options, as this research suggests, then this should be seen as discrimination.
Authors: Michael Dockery, Associate Professor, Curtin University