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Addressing equal pay needs an intersectional approach

The cultural pay gap needs to be part of the equal pay conversation.

When speaking about equal pay, most people reference data comparing the average earnings of men versus women. In Australia, the national gender pay gap of 13% indicates that on average, for every $1 men earn in Australia, women make 87 cents. 

However, this figure doesn’t provide the complete picture. By depicting women as a monolith, this number ignores the cultural or ethnic pay gap, where the intersection of gender, race and ethnicity has a compounding effect, widening the pay gap for women of colour who earn significantly less than their white and male counterparts. 

Continuous research conducted from 2018 and presently by diversity research and consultancy firm MindTribes, shows that the ethnic gender pay gap in Australian organisations can be around 33-36%. Women from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds spend up to eight years longer in middle management roles compared to women from Anglo and European backgrounds. They are often underemployed or experience higher rates of workplace bullying and harassment linked to their gender, race and ethnicity.  

In the US, 2021 Census data revealed Black women earned about 63 cents for every dollar white men earned, while Hispanic or Latina women earned about 58 cents. Overall, women earned 82 cents for every dollar men earned. 

While it immediately appears that capturing more detailed data in Australia could help in understanding and addressing the ethnic pay gap, some say it’s not so simple. 

“You can't quite count cultures as you can count men and women, as race and cultural identity is more intersectional, for example biracial people, people of colour, culturally and linguistically diverse, religions, faiths,” says Div Pillay, CEO of Mind Tribes.

“Many organisations we support try to use the same counting method for race and ethnicity counts that they have used for gender equality efforts. However, people hold unique cultural and racial identities that they self-identify with, and they are not homogenous.” 

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) is a federal government agency that reports Australia’s gender pay gap every year. Since 2022, WGEA has included voluntary questions in its Employer Census related to diversity and inclusion, encouraging employers to provide voluntary employee diversity data where they collect it. 

“Most data sets we look at in large workforces don’t collect or only have begun to collect [by voluntary disclosure] race, ethnicity, faith, religion and languages spoken data,” says Pillay. “So the data set is incomplete and there is no way of overlaying intersectional data with pay gap data or no way to disaggregate pay gap data if intersectional data is not collected in the first place.” 

Instead, she asks business leaders whom she consults to start thinking about hypotheses or critical assumptions based on what she knows through Mind Tribes’ research. The research reveals that the ethnic gender pay gap highlights systemic issues such as occupational segregation, underemployment and underrepresentation of women of colour at executive levels. 

In terms of occupational segregation, Pillay explains there’s often a disproportionately high number of people who are racially and ethnically diverse in certain types of roles and functional areas, usually more technical, analyst, customer-facing and service roles. These are not mid-senior leadership roles, and don’t usually involve the management of people.

Migration is a big factor here. Mind Tribes’ research indicates that in the first five years post-migration, CALD people are often restarting their careers. Their professional qualifications attained overseas may not meet Australian requirements, and their focus is on job attainment, financial stability, navigating visas and working hours. 

In the five to 10 years post-migration, CALD people focus more on job security and financial improvement. This can entail trying to move from casual, contract or part-time employment to a full-time role, and sometimes more money and time spent so they can switch to a professional role that matches their education or past experience. 

Pillay describes occupational segregation as “institutional racism”.

“We confront hiring leaders who actually know that someone is overqualified and internationally experienced but they start them in lower roles or don’t allow them to progress unless they gain a significant number of years in Australia,” says Pillay. “It's actually holding a whole demographic back and putting them into occupational segregation.

“Then we look for an underemployment factor. Let's say an Anglo woman is in the same role as a culturally diverse woman or a woman of colour. We look at background skills, qualifications and overseas experience, and we look at that commensurate to the role. We will find often that the woman of colour is underemployed relative to the things that she can actually do and what she is worth in the market, and she should be in a different role altogether.”

She explains that this woman “has likely taken a role when she arrived in Australia that was lower than her skill-set and worth and that role has pigeon-holed her all the way.

“She is only promoted or progressed based on the role she is currently doing. If we compare that Anglo woman to the woman of colour, there will be no pay discrepancy between them because the comparison [of pay] is often role-based.” 

One Sydney woman, who spoke to Missing Perspectives on the condition of anonymity, details the challenges in obtaining employment in Australia after migrating from Dubai as an overseas medical graduate. With her medical qualifications not recognised in Australia, she learnt she would need to complete multiple Australian Medical Association exams that cost anywhere between $2,000 and $4,000 per exam. Not only were limited spots available to overseas graduates, but it was also challenging to secure a placement at a local hospital. 

Most places expect prior work experience, but “how do you get experience when you have not actually been given a shot?” 

This woman completed observership programs at two public hospitals in Sydney, where she was treating patients but not being paid for it. 

“They would just let me do what I needed to do, of course without pay,” she says. “By the end of it, they would say, ‘you can keep coming’ because they knew I was doing the job, and I was getting the work done without pay – which [you’d think] would qualify as experience. But experience when you apply for a job will also entail having a supervising vision, someone to report to and ‘actual’ experience in Australia.” 

With the time and money involved, plus the high possibility of being placed at a rural location if she passed the exams, this woman decided to look for other roles in the medical field. After initially working as a receptionist in a general practice, she’s now working at an insurance company, dealing largely with workers’ compensation matters. It means she’s still able to liaise with doctors, physiotherapists and allied health workers, but of course, it’s not clinical work involving seeing patients. 

“I've come to terms with it, although I would have enjoyed a clinical setting, don't get me wrong,” she explains. “But I didn't want to jump through hoops to get to the bare minimum and give up my life and settle somewhere quite rural and be away from my husband.”

She knows of other overseas medical graduates who’ve turned to careers in IT or non-clinical work in the wider medical field. “The salary is considerably less than what they were earning back in their own countries.” 

Underemployment of women of colour born and brought up in Australia is also rampant. Sydney-based Aisha, who works in the community sector, says she has previously struggled to find the confidence to advocate for herself or question her salary at the recruitment stage. 

“As I've progressed in the workforce, what I’ve really started to notice is that I’m more qualified and also more experienced than many of my white female colleagues,” she says. 

She also notes that while she holds an undergraduate degree qualification and has completed two Masters, she has worked at the same level as someone else who’s only completed an undergraduate degree.

“The biggest fear that we have is that we [as women of colour] are successful for a role and then when it comes to remuneration, we’re scared that if we say too much, they’re going to say ‘No, you don’t have the job’.” 

Recommendation 6 of the 2021 Review of the Workplace Gender Equality Act recommends qualitative research “on the best way to collect more diversity data in addition to gender data to enable voluntary reporting, including on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background, cultural and linguistic diversity, and disability”.

While WGEA is believed to be commencing research around this, Pillay says the cultural pay gap is a more urgent issue that requires attention now. Rather than waiting for new measurement or counting methods, she advises businesses to critically ask themselves if occupational segregation, underemployment and white-washed executive boards play a big role in their structure, and then “start making change”. 

“We can’t really wait for data sets to be complete or a time when large agencies like WGEA actually mandate that organisations take an intersectional lens to pay gap data,” she says.

“When we decide to wait, then we are actually asking racially and ethnically diverse people to forgo pay equity at times in their professional and family lives when they need it the most, especially with the cost of living rising.”