• Why women of colour are disproportionately impacted by the gender wage gap. (Getty Images )
For women of colour, systemic issues play a serious role when it comes to asking for more pay.
By
Neha Kale

7 May 2018 - 8:15 AM  UPDATED 2 Nov 2018 - 10:13 AM

For Linda Hassan*, there are no guarantees when it comes to asking for what you’re worth. In her last role, Hassan, a 40-year old finance professional who was born in India and continued her education in New Zealand before relocating to Australia, summoned the courage to ask her boss for a pay increase. Her efforts felt flat.

“In my last job, I tried to negotiate for better pay because I had been promoted and still hadn’t received a pay increase even though the new role came with more responsibility and more work,” Hassan tells SBS. “I don’t know if it is my personality or my cultural background but I’ve never been comfortable talking about pay. It was the first time I’d ever brought up the topic. It didn’t go well.”

 “We’ve found that women whose jobs in Australia are significantly lower paid than their home countries suffer from lower self-worth and although they know they are underpaid, they have to work to prove their expertise. It creates an internal conflict that [demands] inner resilience.”

Negotiating a pay rise is often seen as a rite of passage for women in the workplace so much so that it’s sparked its own hashtag (#askformore). It’s also seen as an all-important step towards closing the gap that, according to February 2018 data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency sees Australian women who work full-time paid $27,000 less a year than men in similar roles.

But although these statistics paint a startling picture of gender disparity in the workforce, they don’t address all the ways the fight for equal pay can be compounded by a woman’s race. An August 2016 report from the US-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that African-American women suffered the largest decline in wages over the last decade. April 2018 data from Equal Pay Day shows that Native American and Latina women earn .57 cents and .54 cents to every dollar earned by a white man.

Studies conducted in Australia to date haven’t considered ethnicity but there’s plenty of research to suggest that race shapes women’s participation and compensation in the workforce. February 2017 research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that women from migrant backgrounds are nearly 11.9 per cent less likely to be employed than white women while a March 2016 NITV report shows that Indigenous women earn $349 less a week than non-Indigenous men.

Women from migrant backgrounds are nearly 11.9 per cent less likely to be employed than white women while a March 2016 NITV report shows that Indigenous women earn $349 less a week than non-Indigenous men.

Nita Tailor is a Brisbane restaurateur who grew up in England and immigrated to Australia 11 years ago. Tailor believes that for many women from migrant backgrounds, the pay gap reflects access to opportunities as well as the chance to assume leadership positions that are often higher paid. 

“When we were first looking for a space for our Brisbane restaurant, we were turned down because we were Indian and it wasn’t hidden — they just told us outright,” she says. “In a working environment, I’ve been pretty fortunate but that’s because I’m self-employed — although I’ve seen other women [from my community] struggle. For me, it’s all about providing support for women from different backgrounds to become leaders. For many of us, just being in a situation where we can ask for more money is a huge problem. Pay issues stem from this.”

In June, Melbourne consultancy MindTribes will release a report that explores the ways in which the wage gap plays out for culturally diverse women, in partnership with the Melbourne University. This research, according to MindTribes CEO Div Pillay, identifies that CALD women in Australia encounter barriers that can affect how much they get paid at work. 

“CALD women often accept lower-paid roles than their home countries to get a foothold in the Australian market — for example, in banking, 20 years of international experience is only worth 10 years of Australian experience,” she says. “We’ve found that women whose jobs in Australia are significantly lower paid than their home countries suffer from lower self-worth and although they know they are underpaid, they have to work to prove their expertise. It creates an internal conflict that [demands] inner resilience.”

Indeed, this research — along with the wider debate about the wage gap — tends to focus on professional women, often from middle-class, highly educated backgrounds (blame it on Sheryl Sandberg). 

Indeed, this research — along with the wider debate about the wage gap — tends to focus on professional women, often from middle-class, highly educated backgrounds (blame it on Sheryl Sandberg). 

As Kirsten Bickendorf, CEO of the Australian Refugee Association and an SA Chief for Gender Equity Group puts it, CALD women can also be affected by a “lack of working English proficiency, confidence and the inability to speak up when inequity is present.”

But speaking up about your accomplishments and voicing concerns that you’re being undervalued is difficult when progress in the workplace is often as influenced by social capital as it is by skill and talent. It’s doubly difficult when the culture teaches women from immigrant backgrounds to simply be grateful for the opportunities they have.

“I can’t talk about Rugby or drinks or celebrities so I sometimes don’t connect in the same way which means it can be difficult to progress,” Hassan says. “Many immigrant women are happy to just have a job and don’t want to take the risk of negotiating pay. Sometimes, I think that there is a limit to how far we can go. Culturally, I feel like I’m less likely to talk about myself and sell my skills. There is a real disparity between how we’re perceived and what we’re truly capable of.”

*Name has been changed

Neha Kale is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @Neha_Kale

Is Australia Sexist? premieres on SBS Australia, 4 December, 8.40pm, and will be available to stream at SBS On Demand.

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