A rash of news headlines highlighting the many forms of discrimination women face in the workplace should be a timely reminder to act decisively for change.

OPINIONTelevision journalist Lisa Wilkinson’s shock departure from the Today show recently reignited public discussion about the gender pay gap.

The saga over Wilkinson’s break-up with Channel Nine coincided in the news cycle with the fallout of sexual abuse and harassment allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein.

Breakfast TV and Hollywood may seem a long way from the world of superannuation, but the message to take is that we need to act decisively and with lasting impact to address imbalances of power and position. This is true whether they exist in the companies we invest in or within our own organisations.

Wilkinson’s seven-figure salary and potential future earning power mean her situation is very different from the average female worker. But her fight to achieve parity illustrates a broader problem of blatant pay discrimination in like-for-like roles.

Using Australian Bureau of Statistics data for the 2016, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) calculated the national gender pay gap to be 15.3 per cent for full-time employees, a difference of $251.20 a week.

WGEA also found the financial services industry had a staggering 29.6 per cent gender pay gap, the biggest of any major sector in the economy.

A perplexing problem

Why and how this is the case despite the prevalence of so many talented and confident women working in our financial and insurance services sector is as perplexing as it is complex. So, what can be done about it?

In instances where women are being paid less for performing work of the same value, the case for immediate action is clear. Where direct discrimination is not to blame, determining the right course of action is less obvious. Within the superannuation industry, human resources managers routinely point out how challenging it is to achieve and maintain gender balance within highly paid, and male-dominated, investment management and information technology teams.

Many trace the problem right back to the low take-up of maths and science subjects among female students in schools and universities. We see evidence of this in the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees’ (AIST) long-running super graduate program, where male applicants for graduate investment roles far outnumber females – typically by a ratio of at least 10 to 1.

But there are also problems at the top. A recent WGEA report showed that organisations with balanced representation of women in executive leadership roles typically have half the pay gap of organisations with minimal female leadership. On average, the managerial gender pay gap is about 15 per cent at firms where 20 per cent of managers are female, and falls steadily to 8 per cent at companies where 80 per cent of managers are female.

Change afoot

AIST recently completed research among our member funds. While the research was not designed to examine pay levels, an analysis of the talent pipeline across the 16 profit-to-member funds involved revealed funds still hiring more men than women for senior positions. AustralianSuper, whose chief executive Ian Silk is a member of the Male Champions of Change, is one fund that has been proactive in trying to tackle the gender pay gap. The fund is committed to eradicating the gap in its investment team, but admits it is difficult to attract women into investment roles. Excluding the investment department, the overall gender pay gap at AustralianSuper sits below the national level, at 10.7 per cent, and, pleasingly, the fund has no gender pay gap in like-for-like roles.

No excuses

Australia-wide, financial services is the third best-paid sector for women. Other top-paying industries, like mining and technology, are also male-dominated, while female-dominated industries, like teaching or nursing, pay less.

But relatively well paid or not, there is simply no excuse for like-for-like gender pay gaps in our sector.

Gender diversity brings numerous benefits to an organisation. We must not lose momentum in fighting the grossly unfair systemic discrimination against women, through which not only women – but society and the economy as a whole – suffer.

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