The incredible shrinking ‘pay-gap blowout’

A hot, awful wind ripped through Melbourne from the north on Friday, and for a while, if you were following the news, it was all rather confusing. Were those rattling window panes the latest manifestation of global warming, as some excitable sorts were saying? Or might it be a fresh peril, the huff and puff of patriarchal oppressors bellowing their delight at the widely reported “proof” of a broadening wage gap between men and women?

Both stories made headlines throughout the afternoon, but by day’s end there could be no doubt which had done more to get Australia’s journalists and editors hot and bothered. The proof was in the parade of professional feminists invited to file past the microphones and regret in sorrow and anger the shameful lot of hard-done-by Australian womanhood.

There was only one problem: not a word of the “evidence” that inspired their lamentations was true. Not a single, solitary word. What is it they say about not letting the facts get in the way of a good story?

Simply put, the survey by Graduate Careers Australia (GCA) that inspired such sorrow didn’t say what its spruikers in the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) claimed it said. Indeed, just a few hours after the Gillard-created agency trumpeted its claim that recent male graduates were being paid 10% more than their female colleagues, the GCA’s chief of research, Bruce Guthrie, pleaded with the media to stop reporting as fact what the WGEA was giving marquee billing as “the graduate pay-gap blowout”.

The WGEA was guilty of “an overly simplistic reading of, and failure to fully review, the information”, Guthrie advised, adding that the gender bureaucrats, far from advancing the cause of women, were harming their career prospects by inflaming baseless fears and resentments among newly minted female grads. As his press release spelled out, and in bold for added emphasis, it would be “unwise” to see “any sex-based earnings disparity that is necessarily the result of workplace inequality.”

So that should have been the end of it, right? News editors across the country had been told in no uncertain terms that they needed to scratch the “pay gap” story off the lists of items destined for their next editions, broadcasts and web updates. And being responsible journalists, they snapped to attention, honoured their professional obligation to truth and did just that, right?

Actually, no.

Sure, references to Guthrie’s complaint were added as updates, but that was all. After that small concession to truth, the panjandrum of falsehoods continued to roll across the nation’s front pages. Why that should have been the case – why news organisations persisted in reporting as fact a story its original source had denounced as untrue — says a lot about the current state of the news business, none of it good, and also of the spin and artfully packaged falsehoods with which we can expect to be deluged as the election draws near. As one of this government’s most reliable apologists, Fairfax’s Michelle Grattan, put it just before Christmas, we are set for “a gender election”. Could it be that the bogus notion of female graduates being ripped off right and left so neatly matched the meme that it proved impossible to resist?

Given the wage-gap flap, it is worth taking a quick look at the whole sorry saga, starting with the fact that the big “news” wasn’t really news at all, the GCA annual report (the pdf file can be downloaded here) having been released all of three weeks earlier,  on December 14. It prompted a little attention at the time, but not much, with reports in The West Australian and Australian Financial Review focusing on the enduring impact of the GFC, which the report blamed for inhibiting hiring and salary growth. Neither newspaper saw in the statistics any suggestion of a “gender pay gap”, or at least no evidence of one worth reporting.

That all changed late last week, when the WGEA, known until November as The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, pumped out a florid press release. If reporters lacked the nous to spot sex discrimination, well damn it, the federal government’s grievance mongers would get out the taxpayer-funded Mixmaster and beat up some interest from scratch. Here is how the missive began:

New figures show the gender pay gap between female and male university graduates more than doubled last year, increasing from $2000 to $5000 per annum.

The 2012 GradStats report by Graduate Careers Australia shows median full-time employment starting salaries for male graduates are $55,000 (up from $52,000 in 2011), compared to $50,000 for women (no change from 2011). The current graduate gender pay gap across all occupations is 9.1%.

The figures will shock many recent school leavers as they contemplate their futures while awaiting university offers in coming weeks.

Dr Carla Harris, Research Executive Manager at the Workplace Gender Equality Agency said ‘It is very disturbing that men’s starting salaries have increased over the past year but those of women have not, especially given that women make up the majority of university graduates.

"The lesson here is that the gender pay gap continues to have a very real impact on the bank balance of young women starting their careers."

That was all it took for the howling to begin, the racket ringing out from coast to coast and Dr Harris, formerly a plant ecologist, getting lots of column inches and airtime to opine. The West Australian, which had not initially noticed a sexism angle, now parroted WGEA’s alarum, also including an additional an quote from Dr Harris on the endemic incidence of sexist collusion:

"In some organisations there is often a bit of a boy’s club," Dr Harris said.

"Sometimes there is embedded bias, it may not always be conscious, but often we will preferentially treat different types of people – like attracts like, … and people tend to recruit people similar to them."

On the other coast, in far-away Gladstone, the local APN-owned rag, The Observer, published its own, lightly re-written and uncritical version of the WGEA’s press release, as did the dozens of Fairfax papers in its metropolitan and Rural Press stables.

And the ABC, of course, was also keen to give the WGEA’s accusations a tonne of airtime. This AM interview with Harris is entirely typical. Clearly, whether or not the story had legs, news outlets were going to run with it — and they were going to run hard.

If sheer weight of coverage testifies to truth, then those charges of an “old boys club” grinding ambitious young women beneath the chauvinist heel must be true beyond the shadow of a doubt. If they weren’t, as Guthrie insisted, well some less-than-felicitous paraphrasing could minimse those objections. Just as a reminder, here are the CGA’s actual words (emphasis in the original):

… while some of the residual gender pay gap might potentially be explained by workplace inequalities, it could also likely be explained if more detail were available regarding additional, but unknown, variables not collected as part of the AGS. It would therefore be unwise to assume on this evidence that there is any sex-based earnings disparity that is necessarily the result of workplace inequality.

And here is how The Age summarised that objection:

…the association that compiles data on university graduates disputed the findings. Graduate Careers Australia said the pay gap was smaller than the one outlined by the equality agency.

However, the agency’s research executive manager, Carla Harris, said the report drew reasonable conclusions from the data available.

The report was based on a survey by Graduate Careers Australia, which gathered data from recent higher education graduates.

Graduate Careers Australia said that while a 2010 survey had found a wage gap of 3 per cent, its causes were ”unexplained”.

“Unexplained”, eh? Yes, that was true of the 2010 survey, but it is the one for 2012 that is at issue, the report in which the WGEA divined its “10% blowout”. The CGA could not have been more explicit. It was not, as The Age put it, that the gap was “smaller than the one outlined”, it was that there were better explanations for 2012’s gender differential than Blokes-R-Us clichés. Here is what its press release stated:

The large $5,000 pay gap [for 2012] favouring males observed at the overall level can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that males tend to be over-represented in higher-paying fields such as engineering. In addition, some of the larger wage gaps are observed in fields with relatively low response numbers (e.g. dentistry, optometry) which could make them unreliable.

But why bother with troublesome facts when the grievance industry’s vast machinery was whining into life? After misrepresenting the CGA’s cautionary explanation, The Age story dived straight back into the business of airing feminist suspicions of the conspiracies men are presumed to hatch when women are out of earshot, also floating some suggestions about the best ways to foil them. For example, Monash University research associate Veronica Sheen called for “greater transparency around pay” in an effort to tackle inequality, adding that women faced significant underemployment and “don’t have enough hours of work and they want more.”

By Saturday morning, Anne Summers was on the case, joining all the other of her sisters upset about that (non-existent) “10% blowout”. Although 24 hours had passed since the CGA’s Guthrie attempted to put the kibosh on the story, more than adequate time for Summers to file an update or a half-competent sub-editor to insert one, the WGEA’s line was once again passed off as unqualified truth. Can it have been only last month that Summers was billing herself as a champion of journalism, a “wordsmith” whose byline is “associated with good writing, good reporting, good investigative journalism”?

Nor was Summers alone, with gender crusaders piling on the explanations and, more worryingly, their suggested remedies. To some, the alleged wage gap reflected women’s social conditioning; unlike men, it seems women are so pathetically grateful to be merely given a chance they totally forget to negotiate decent salaries. Other voices said it was all institutionalised prejudice, and since there is never a show without Punch (or Judy, in this case), our Prime Minister was not about to be left out of the scrum. Having devoted much of the past year to whipping up a bitter confection of gender resentments, she returned, once again to her theme, a dog unto its vomit:

"I’m going to need to drill down to the very specific statistics here,’’ she told ABC News 24.

‘‘But any gender pay gap concerns me, whether it’s for graduates or people who have been in the workforce for a long time.’’Ms Gillard said her government had already acted to make a difference to gender pay inequality.

‘‘The industrial relations system we have now has a principle at its centre, which is that women, and what is viewed as women’s work traditionally, should not be the subject of lower pay rates,’’ she said.

‘‘We haven’t just enacted a bill about it.”

WHY should any of this matter? Why is the Great Pay Gap Blowout worth more than another footnote in the ABC’s chronicle of bias, guest-stacking and slanted reporting, or more significant than one more milestone on the sad road to oblivion Fairfax has been taking since severing the tie between reality and so much of its reporting? Why heed any more than usual the voices of academics and public servants advancing a cause that is the basis for so many careers, grants and nice trips to international conferences?

The reason is in Gillard’s last comment, quoted above. Her government hasn’t just enacted a bill, it has also given the WGEA the muscle to enforce what it regards as a fair shake for women. To this end, under the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012, made law in November, the agency will soon have the quite extraordinary power to second-guess how companies run their affairs, who they should have promoted, and what sort of pay cheques they must take home. Here is how the WGEA describes the key aspect of its brief:

From 2014, the Act requires employers in the non-public sector with 100 or more employees to lodge a report each year containing information relating to various gender equality indicators, for example, equal remuneration between women and men.

Given that the WGEA did such a foul job of reading, analysing and reporting the CGA’s findings, won’t it be fun and games when its gender inspectors turn their attention, and their coercive authority, to reforming industry and fine-tuning the workforce?

As for the watchdogs of the media, a few press releases that don’t require too much re-writing should keep them happy and supportive, at least until they are distracted by the next hot day in summer.

Roger Franklin, editor of Quadrant Online, is of the quaint view that journalists owe their first loyalties to the facts

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