26 September 2023

Are study choices the key to equality progress?

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Evie Fox Koob* shares insights on how study choices are holding back women and what to do about it.

The Australian workforce is highly segregated by gender. Four out of five workers in aged care, for example, are women, and nearly nine in ten construction workers are men.

The latest FWX shows that this labour market divide, which begins in our tertiary study choices, is the most significant contributor to Australia’s struggle to reach gender parity any time soon.

Apart from equity reasons, why does gender segregation matter?

Wages in feminised industries are lower on average.

Recent analysis showed that 20 per cent of the gender pay gap can be attributed to industrial segregation, and another 4 per cent to occupational segregation.

Multiple studies link the gender imbalance of industries and occupations to a less productive economy, because workers are not best matched to jobs that align with their individual talent, skills or capability.

And we also desperately need more workers in the care economy to manage an ageing population, with the skills shortage in aged care is projected to reached 400,000 by 2050.

Not that this issue is unique to Australia.

In fact, a new range of research shows that more progressive countries actually have less balanced workforces in terms of gender than less progressive countries.

For example, a smaller percentage of women are STEM graduates in the Nordic countries of Sweden, Finland and Norway than less gender equal countries such as Albania and Algeria.

And only 19 per cent of engineering majors are held by women in the United States, compared to 40 per cent in Jordan.

This surprising result has been dubbed the “gender-equality paradox”.

Researchers argue that it is easier for fundamental gender stereotypes about professions to materialise in countries with fewer economic constraints.

In other words, with fewer concerns about finances, women in developed countries have more freedom with their study choices based on personal factors.

And then internalised gender norms about jobs creep in – evident in that people in more gender equal countries more strongly associate with the stereotype that ‘maths is not for girls’.

These findings tell us that we can’t assume that as countries and generations become more progressive over time, women and men will more evenly sort into jobs.

It is a circular issue that women select into the industries that society expects of them, and then are paid less because society places lower value on feminised industries.

As researchers from Cornell University found, when women enter fields in large numbers, average pay declines – even when you control for factors like education, work experience, skills, race and geography.

The key to progress is therefore the revaluing of feminised industries (particularly the care economy).

Not only will this reduce the remuneration gap directly – including in Australia – but it will provide the proper incentives for men to select into traditionally feminised industries and reduce the self-selection disparity itself.

Evie Fox Koob* is a Senior Analyst in the Sydney Economic Analysis and Policy team in Deloitte Access Economics.

This article first appeared at financy.com.au

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