Sexism in the city: more effort and less pay

Accountant Julie Chuck knows that if a man were doing her job, he'd be “earning at least twice the amount “ she does.

“It's not because they do the work better, that's definitely not the case,” she said. “It's just sort of a given.”

Chuck is not alone in earning below her capacity. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as of February 2012 there was a gender wage gap of 17.4 per cent across all sectors – with an average full-time weekly wage of $1,186.90 for women and $1,437.40 for men.

When you break it down by industry the results are considerably worse. Women working in the health care sector can expect to earn 32.6 per cent less than men with finance coming a close second 31.3 per cent. On the other end of the spectrum the retail sector offers the lowest percentage at 7.9, with public administration right behind it at eight per cent.

Whatever the rate, the trend shows no sign of abating. Though it dipped as low as 14.9 per cent in 2004, the gap is wider now than it was 10 years ago and looks set to continue.

It's a common experience shared by women across the globe. Last month US firm PayScale released data showing women earn substantially less than their male counterparts after graduation - a median of $US31,900 for recent university graduates compared with $US40,800 for males. But the disparity doesn't end there.

With wages growing at the same rate in terms of percentage between the ages of 22 to 30, there is marked decline in the salary growth of women after this period. By the age of 39, women's earning capacity has peaked with most sitting at around $US60,000. Men, however, peak almost a decade later at 48, with an average salary of $US95,000. But the question remains: Why?

Working for the same employer for 28 years, 56-year-old Chuck's recent salary increase was the first time her wage had risen in six years. Though she enjoys her job she concedes working for small businesses make some women particularly vulnerable.

“I'm employed by a friend and we work well together,” she said. “I don't get an increase every year. He gives me extra money when and if I need it but I don't tend to ask for a pay rise as such.”

She believes the inequality is generational and many women weren't taught to be assertive in the workplace, adding that this reluctance to speak up eventually gives way to apathy.

“I'm not very good at doing that. You just live the way you live. I don't think I should have to ask for it, it should be a given. But if you don't ask and are happy enough with it I suppose they see no reason to increase it,” she said.

“There are some assertive women out there but on the whole we're a bit on the permissive side. I've had some of the same clients for 14 years, and he really couldn't do without me. I've probably got a card to play, I just don't play it.”

Suzi Finkelstein, executive convenor of Women & Leadership Australia at the Australian School of Applied Management, says disproportionate salaries are an institutional problem, deeply entrenched in the workplace culture of many industries. Once considered less suitable for leadership roles, women can struggle to work their way up the chain and are often passed over for male colleagues irrespective of their ability and performance record.

“The climate is challenging – we continue to hear of the challenges of being part of a system that lacks meritocracy,” she said. “Promotions and talent management focus on men and those who are able to work full time across their career journey. Some women also report on the frustrations of being allocated demeaning work as their part time roles dictate. They are often working harder than their male counterparts and are ignored for talent development programs and struggle with pay inequity.”

Limited opportunities for promotion and subsequent wage disparity are also prevalent in industries traditionally associated with women.

Claire Miller, 62, is a nurse who worked in remote aboriginal communities before making the switch to the hospital system. Though she and her male colleagues have been on the same wage for much of their careers due to a standardised pay structure, she's seen more men advance to better paying senior positions.

“In nursing, there is still this old thing that you don't do nursing for the money you do it for the greater good,” she said. “You get paid a certain amount the first year the graduate and that climbs for the next eight years where it plateaus. In nursing pay rates are the same for men, but a lot more men are going into management roles… It's a whole mentality that men are the breadwinners and women are doing it for the fun of it.”