Five clues to the origin of the gender pay gap and how to fix them

Subtle differences in the upbringing of boys and girls could set the scene for inequality at work, research shows.

Despite attempts to break down the barriers for women, equality at work is still a long way off. While the number of females in top jobs has risen accounting for 26 per cent of board members in ASX companies, compared to 8 per cent in 2009 – the gender pay gap has remained fairly steady for two decades. Currently, women continue to earn 15 per cent less than men in Australia.

Lack of confidence is one factor blamed for holding women back. Some studies show that barriers in the workplace undermine their self-esteem, while others indicate the problem may start earlier, with adolescent girls being found to have less confidence than boys.

However, those results came from research in mixed-sex schools. What about girls growing up in other environments where they are actively encouraged to be leaders – would they still face the same challenges? To find out, Dr Terrance Fitzsimmons, a gender equality and management expert from The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School, surveyed over 10,000 boys and girls in elite single-sex schools in Queensland.

He found no significant difference in self-confidence between boys and girls. However, even for these children who were likely to have the added benefit of having highly educated parents working in professional careers, the results revealed some subtle differences which could hold clues to the gender divide at work:

1. The pay gap starts with pocket money
Boys were more likely to engage in outdoor chores compared to girls. While boys were out washing the family car, cleaning a boat or mowing the lawn; girls tended to stay inside doing the dishes, vacuuming or caring for siblings. Terrance says the results tie in with pocket money surveys by Westpac and Heritage Bank, which identified a gender pay gap of 27% and related to parents placing more value on outdoor chores.

"At face value it may seem trivial, but we know from research into leadership that internalised beliefs about ‘what men should do’ and ‘how women should behave’ do indeed translate into career outcomes."

"Giving boys and girls different chores not only ‘normalises’ gender roles, but it could also set up expectations and create a tacit acceptance of the gender pay gap later in life,” says Terrance.

2. Boys spend more time outside
The survey showed that boys spend more time overall on outdoor activities and team sports - one of the most effective ways to build self-confidence. Researchers were surprised to find that the single-sex boys’ schools in the survey had three times the amount of immediately accessible outdoor play space than girls’ schools.

While the difference did not impact children’s confidence levels, Terrance says it may have some influence on career choices.

“Both schools and parents need to encourage girls to spend more time on outdoor activities. Not doing so could reinforce the stereotype that boys’ work should be outdoors and girls’ work indoors.”

3. Boys are more likely to know their parents’ jobs
Boys had a greater and earlier understanding of their mother’s and particularly their father’s occupations. The survey found children who have an understanding of their parents’ degrees and careers demonstrated a higher degree of self-confidence.

Terrance says, “parents should discuss their own careers and education with their children, as well as the importance of having both. Children should be aware of their parents’ qualifications and careers from primary school age.”

4. Boys and girls have different reasons to work
While both sexes had the same top three reasons for wanting to work, girls ranked the need to help others in fourth place, whereas boys ranked it in seventh place. There was also a difference in the importance placed on such factors.

Boys tended to place greater store on autonomy - “having a secure job and income” or “being independent/my own boss.” While girls focused on activities such as ‘helping others’ and ‘meeting people’.

5. Career preferences have diverged by year 10
Researchers gave students a list of activities that reflected different types of careers and asked them to choose those that most appealed. For boys overall, the top three choices were being the manager of a company, followed by designing and building robots and designing laser cutting machines. Girls’ top three were designing clothes, planning colour schemes for the interiors of buildings and being the manager of a company.

The results show that interests change over the years and by Years 10 and 11, boys and girls have diverged markedly. At this stage, both sexes put managing their own company in first place, but girls’ choices are largely driven by meeting social needs while boys focus on solving technical problems.

From year seven onward, girls are less interested than boys in technology, science, finance and economics, but more interested in art, design, social services and healthcare.

“Career domain preferences are already well established by the time they enter high school, so any interventions need to be before this,” says Terrance.

“Primary schools could do more to engage girls in technology and science by using role models to challenge traditional stereotypes.”

He points out that, while business have made progress in tackling inequality, the research shows that it is a much wider problem. “Gender inequality is a complex issue that is not due to any one single factor and cannot be resolved by any one organisation."

“As attitudes start to form early in life, relying on intervention in the workplace is too late. We need to start at an earlier stage. Businesses, parents, schools and government will all have a role to play in creating a fairer society,” says Terrance.

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