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What does the WGEA gender pay gap data tell us about how inclusive workplaces are for parents?

By Erica Hatfield | |10 minute read
What Does The Wgea Gender Pay Gap Data Tell Us About How Inclusive Workplaces Are For Parents

WGEA recently released the first batch of gender pay gap data for private sector employers with 100 or more employees, and it goes well beyond just a single number. It is a treasure trove of data for HR leaders to gain valuable insights into workplace practices and outcomes relating to the equity and inclusion of working parents.

This is useful because, in any DEI strategy, it is essential to consider the valuably experienced working parents who make up around two-fifths of the Australian workforce.

This cohort also faces several workplace challenges as parenthood and gender intersect. The well-documented divergence of women’s and men’s earnings due to parenthood has been identified as the primary driver of gender pay gaps. You may have heard of the ‘motherhood penalty’ (the discrimination women face with the intersecting identities of mother and employee) and the ‘fatherhood bonus’ (the benefits derived from fatherhood being seen as signalling greater work commitment, stability, and deservingness). Bear in mind these do not apply consistently across the diversity of all working parents due to other interacting factors, a key one being privilege.

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Parental leave

The latest ABS data shows that in 2022, there were 300,684 births registered in Australia with the median age of parents being early 30s. This tells us two things: we have a lot of parents taking parental leave year on year, and these parents are generally at the mid-career level which means they have valuable experience and skills that we want to attract and retain.

The WGEA data reveals some interesting findings:

  • Most employers (63 per cent) offer employer-funded parental leave as either universal carer leave (21 per cent), or as primary/secondary carer leave (42 per cent), whilst only 36 per cent offer no leave. The minimum number of weeks of parental leave offered by employers varied from universal (12 weeks), to primary carers (11.9 weeks), and finally our poor secondary carers (three weeks). If you’re not offering parental leave yet, it’s worth checking out how your company compares within your industry and to your direct competitors. Additionally, there is a move towards removing primary/secondary carer labels to offer leave equally to both parents. This supports a shared care model and gives families greater choice around how they structure parental leave and caring responsibilities.

  • There is a significant gender imbalance when it comes to parental leave takers with only 14 per cent of all paid primary carer parental leave taken by men. So why is this the case? We could look at the impact of gender stereotypes relating to who’s typecast as the ‘carer’ versus the ‘breadwinner’. We could even look at the gender pay gap and assume some two-parent families are making decisions based on basic finances around whoever is earning more (typically men). Alongside these considerations lies workplace bias. I’ve coached many parents through the transition to parental leave and return to work. Several have advised that whilst their workplaces have policies offering parental leave equally to both parents, men are finding it difficult to access parental leave and are being questioned in ways women never would be. Great policies don’t automatically translate to great implementation, so keep an eye out for any need for manager feedback or training.

  • Superannuation payments (whilst mandatory on other leave types) are not required on parental leave. This is quite an anomaly and I’d love to know the history here. But for now, it’s important to note that 86 per cent of employers offering paid parental leave also pay super on it. Additionally, as women are the overwhelming majority of primary care leave takers, not paying super disproportionately affects them. So, if you’re not paying super on parental leave, please reconsider.

Flexible work

We’ve all heard of the dreaded ‘juggle’ which refers to the conflict between work and family roles. We also know that greater access to flexible work arrangements provided by organisations is linked to improved parental wellbeing.

So what options are available? WGEA data indicates more than 90 per cent of employers offered flexible hours of work, part-time work, time in lieu, unpaid leave and working from home. Less popular, but still significant, were job sharing (66 per cent), compressed working weeks (59 per cent), and purchased leave (42 per cent).

It’s also important to note the WGEA data doesn’t capture the full extent of the strategies parents employ to manage their work-family responsibilities. Research by La Trobe University found common informal ad hoc practices included performing family-related tasks alongside work or leaving early and catching up on work after hours.

Most parents I coach used reduced hours (part-time work) and hybrid working to help facilitate their transition back into the workplace. Compressed working weeks are also popular to help maintain income levels, create more time with children and lessen the need for outsourced childcare (along with the associated high costs).

This also has a gender impact as it’s still far more common for women than men to use flexible working arrangements to balance work and family. ABS data from 2017 indicated that 42 per cent of working dads/non-birthing parents and 70 per cent of working mums/birthing parents were using at least one form of flexible work arrangement to care for children.

Women potentially need more flexibility as they typically take on a greater share of unpaid domestic/childcare work. But the stats may also indicate barriers for men to access workplace flexibility to manage caring responsibilities.

Here are some things to consider when reviewing flexibility practices at your workplace.

  1. Do we have a policy? Surprisingly only 84 per cent of employers have a flexible work policy. My advice? If you don’t have one yet, start writing it today. Policies help to set expectations and provide a framework for decision-making so people are treated fairly and consistently. Helpfully, the WGEA website provides a list of flexible work policy inclusions such as evaluating the impact of flexibility, setting targets for men’s engagement in flexible work, etc.

  2. What flexible work arrangements do we offer? How popular are they and why? Do these offerings meet the actual (rather than assumed) needs of working parents at our organisation?

  3. And just remember, it can all be let down by implementation if flexibility is not being encouraged and offered equally.

Promotions

Years ago, I remember asking the MD “Where did all the women go?” when it came to the gender imbalance amongst senior roles in the company. He told me they had kids and “lost their ambition”. Years later, I realised the only thing they lost were workplace opportunities. This is supported by AHRC data from 2018 which indicated that one in two mothers experienced workplace discrimination, and one in five lost their jobs.

Many women I have coached shared their job security concerns during parental leave, and some were duly justified as they lost their jobs or returned to largely diminished roles. In contrast, the men I’ve coached had no such concerns – likely due to the much shorter leave time and returning to work full-time.

WGEA data provides an overall percentage of men versus women promoted and the gender composition of pay quartiles. These may provide some clues, but it’s also important to delve deeper into what’s happening at your workplace. I recommend tracking parental leaver movements to discover their journey, and then interrogating your data to answer the following questions:

  1. Are parents returning from leave?
  2. Are they returning to their pre-parental leave roles or were there role changes?
  3. Are parents leaving? If so, when and why? If available, check exit interview data.
  4. How many senior roles offer flexibility (particularly part-time hours)? Be mindful that parents can become locked out of career progression if flexibility is not offered, and this can impact the gender diversity of leadership pipelines.

A final piece of advice

Data collected by WGEA and at the organisational level will only ever tell part of the story. Parents are a diverse bunch with diverse needs. If you truly want to make a difference in the lives of working parents make sure you ask them about their experiences. Then as you build or refine policies, processes and other interventions, make sure you keep across how they’re being implemented on the ground so that best intentions do translate to truly supportive actions.

Making assumptions or taking a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t the answer to creating inclusive workplaces for parents. But listening to the parents and people in your business and assessing the data to see what’s happening is a great first step.

Inclusive workplaces are workplaces where diversity thrives, and the business case for more women and diversity in leadership is clear. The WGEA data is the wake-up call we all need, to change the employee experience around parenthood for the better, so that the parenthood penalty becomes a thing of the past.

Who’s with me?

Erica Hatfield is the founder of Hummingbird Careers

RELATED TERMS

Gender pay gap

The term "gender pay gap" refers to the customarily higher average incomes and salaries that men receive over women.

Parental leave

Parental leave is a benefit offered to employees that allows for job-protected time off from work to care for a kid once the child is born or adopted.

Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack is the editor at HR Leader.