Social partners differ over ways to bridge gender pay gap

An EU study on gender pay gaps in the Member States, measured as relative differences in the hourly earnings of women and men, revealed that in Austria women’s gross income falls short of that of men by 25.5%. While these findings have been questioned by employer organisations, trade unions and distinct political actors have been considering the introduction of wage transparency schemes for the private sector to tackle effectively such large gender pay differentials.

On 3 March 2009, a few days ahead of the International Women’s Day celebrated annually on 8 March, the EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Vladimír Špidla, presented, at a kick-off event in Brussels, a new EU information campaign labelled Close the gender pay gap. In this context, the most recent gender pay gap data for each EU country were released, indicating an estimated gap in earnings of 25.5% for Austria in 2007. This is the second highest value of all EU Member States, which is only outweighed by Estonia with an approximate 30% pay gap, while the EU average is estimated at 17.4%.

At EU level, the gender pay gap is defined as the relative difference in the average gross hourly earnings of women and men within a national economy as a whole. This indicator has been defined as unadjusted – for example, not adjusted according to individual characteristics such as full-time or part-time work, age or skills – since it gives an overall picture of gender inequalities in the labour market that explains gender differences in pay.

The publication of these figures by the Austrian media has raised a fierce controversy over the correctness of the EU statistics on the one hand and appropriate measures to tackle the country’s gender pay gap on the other hand.

Social partner response

In a first response, the Chair of the Women’s Organisation within the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB), Renate Csörgits, expressed surprise at the fact that in Austria the target of equal pay for equal work is so far from being realised. ‘Discrimination of women continues to be commonplace in Austria’, she said, making both employers and policymakers discharge their duties. ‘If business is not willing to guarantee equality, it is up to the legislator to do so’, she added. Specifically, Ms Csörgits wants to introduce transparency of all wages and salaries at individual company level in the private sector, in a way analogous to the public sector, at least for young professionals in their first appointment. In order to reach this goal, all employers should be obliged to record both income and hours actually worked for all of their employees. Moreover, Ms Csörgits calls on policymakers to commission and finance an encompassing and detailed research study on the extent and grounds of gender-related pay inequalities in Austria. In addition, she suggested that a national equal pay commission should be set up, equipped with the task of supervising equal treatment in all pay-related matters.

In contrast, the President of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKO), Christoph Leitl, substantially questions the statistics provided by the European Commission and, consequently, does not see much need for action in this respect. He criticised the EU measurement to capture pay differentials as inaccurate, since it ‘does not consider sufficiently the different careers of women and men’. For instance, the incidence of part-time work is much higher among women than among men, as is the take-up rate of parental leave, Mr Leitl claimed. Following his statement that he does ‘not know any enterprise paying an employee lower wages for the only reason of being a woman’, Mr Leitl has received harsh criticism from many sides.

Determinants of gender pay gap

During the last 10 years, a series of studies on gender-related pay differentials, albeit each with a special focus and all with variable scope, have been carried out in Austria. Although their findings may diverge in detail, the following labour market features are widely recognised as main determinants for the significant gender pay gaps in Austria.

High labour market segregation

Women at work in Austria are confined in a restricted number of sectors and professions. Where they dominate, occupations tend to be lower valued and lower paid compared with sectors and companies where male employees prevail. In the mid 2000s, the sectors of the economy most strongly dominated by women were health and social work (77% of all employees were women), education (65%), private services, and hotel and restaurants (61% each). In terms of relative frequencies, most women were engaged in commerce (18%) and public administration (16%). Many women work in lower paid occupations, such as shop assistants, care work and cleaning.

Undervaluation of women’s work

Frequently, women earn less than men for doing jobs of equal value, because women’s competences are often undervalued compared with men’s. For instance, physical tasks, which are mainly performed by men, tend to be valued more favourably and thus better paid compared with activities mainly performed by women, even if the jobs require similar skills and experience.

Traditions and stereotypes

Personal choices of educational paths and, consequently, professional careers are frequently influenced by traditions and stereotypes. Although a majority of Austrian university graduates are women, their share in the better-paying fields such as technology, computing and engineering is still low. Moreover, traditions and stereotypes often force women to reduce their working hours (AT0610049I) or (temporarily) leave the labour market to assume child or elder care responsibilities. Generally, women face much greater difficulties than men in balancing work and private life, because the task of looking after dependent family members is still largely borne by women (AT0503202F).

Traditional ‘male societies’ in companies

In many companies, traditional male-oriented corporate cultures still prevail, meaning that male executives tend to promote men only. This informal ‘glass ceiling’ hinders women from reaching the highest-paying positions even when they have the capabilities to do so. A study presented in early 2009 revealed that in the financial services sector the proportion of female employees amounts to 55%, while less than 4% of managers and executives are women. These results corroborate the findings of previous studies on underrepresentation of women in top-level business positions (AT0511201N).

Commentary

While the main reasons for gender-specific pay inequalities are widely undisputed, there is disagreement among political parties and social partners over the appropriate measures to bridge the gender pay gap. What seems to be clear is that stereotypes entrenched in a society and traditional role models are harder to change than the regulatory framework of employment conditions. Therefore, the governments of recent years have launched several legislative initiatives aiming to improve the employment opportunities of women in general and their income situation in particular.

For instance, in August 2007, a legal claim to premium rates of pay of an additional 25% for overtime work was introduced for part-time workers, the vast majority of whom are women (AT0708019I). Moreover, the government is currently considering an amendment to the childcare benefit scheme, by introducing an income-related option, which is devised to encourage women earning a good wage to resume work earlier after parental leave and to attract a higher proportion of men to assume childcare responsibilities (AT0812039I). At present, the government is also seeking to create a (still indefinite) number of additional childcare places throughout the country, in order to facilitate a better work-life balance for mothers of small children.

However, all of these individual measures are not expected to contribute effectively to tackling the gender-related pay differentials, since they do not target the main determinants for gender-specific remuneration practices as outlined above. In this respect, an obligation for employers to disclose the wages and salaries of employees and thus to prove non-discrimination in remuneration practices appears to be the only promising way forward. For this reason, not only the ÖGB’s Women’s Organisation, but also the conservative Austrian Workers’ Federation (Österreichischer Arbeitnehmerinnen und Arbeitnehmer Bund, ÖAAB) and the Federal Minister for Women and Public Administration, Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek, demand – albeit with some differences in content – wage transparency schemes. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether the respective leaderships of the relevant social partner organisations and governing parties are, for their part, willing to at least enter into negotiations on this issue.

Georg Adam, Department of Industrial Sociology, University of Vienna

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