Many occupations and industries remain highly feminised despite significant government, business and community effort to promote workplace gender equality, says a new report published by the Fair Work Commission, 'Gender-based Occupational Segregation: A National Data Profile'.

Researchers from UNSW’s Social Policy Research Centre analysed data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2021 Census and the 2021 Survey of Employee Earnings and Hours (EEH) to examine current patterns of occupational segregation in Australia and the characteristics of Australia’s most feminised jobs. The report identifies 29 large occupations which are more than 80% female, and which are located within 14 feminised industry classes (where 60% of workers are female). Together these occupations account for over 9% of the workforce, employing more than 1.1 million workers.

According to the report: “Gendered earnings inequalities arise from a range of factors, however, the segregation of women and men into different occupations and industries is a key driver. Many jobs where large numbers of women are concentrated disproportionately feature among the lowest paid, underpinning earnings and wealth gaps that accumulate across the life course.”

Lead researcher, Associate Professor Natasha Cortis, explains, “this new list of highly feminised occupations is based on the best available data and points to the occupations and industries where the undervaluation of women’s work is most likely. Our analysis shows that many highly feminised occupations deliver essential education, care and support services. These are overrepresented among lower paid occupations and all are affected by skill shortages.”

What are some of the most feminised jobs?

The report found Australia's most feminised jobs are midwives, early childhood teachers, dental assistants, child carers, beauty therapists and veterinary nurses. Each of these are at least 96% female. Many highly feminised jobs have very high rates of part-time work and relatively low median wages, maintaining gender-based inequalities in earnings and wealth.

Other highly feminised occupations include nurses in hospitals and aged care, receptionists in general practice medical services and hospitals, primary school teachers, education aides in both primary and secondary school settings, hairdressers, pharmacy sales assistants, clothing retail sales assistants and managers, and medical technicians in pathology and diagnostic imaging services.

“Decades of research shows that the skills used in care and support work are often assumed to be ‘natural’, derived from women’s traditional domestic and caring roles rather than valuable skills worthy of decent pay,” says A/Prof. Cortis. “This list of highly feminised occupations suggests some priorities to guide further investigation to help the community and policymakers better recognise the value of women’s work.”

Study co-leader Dr Yuvisthi Naidoo elaborates: “Women might have made progress toward receiving equal pay in the same settings as men, but this research shows that there are a range of highly feminised work settings which also contribute to the gender pay gap.

“By identifying the 13 federal modern awards that cover these highly feminised occupations and industries, the report helps strengthen the evidence for understanding where to direct efforts to address gender segregation and pay equity issues.”

Occupational segregation has persisted over time

Women’s increased education and workforce participation are among the major economic shifts of the past 50 years. Yet, despite these advances, women’s paid employment has continued to be concentrated in a relatively narrow range of occupations and industries, with high levels of part-time work. Some highly feminised jobs have become increasingly segregated since the 1980s, including child carers, receptionists and primary school teachers.

According to a 2017 Senate report gender segregation has persisted over the decades in which significant legal, policy and institutional reforms have sought to promote gender equality at work, including via anti-discrimination legislation, a national regime of workplace gender equality reporting, a national paid parental scheme, comprehensive equal pay principles, an equal remuneration order for social and community service workers, subsidised child care, expanded rights to flexible working conditions, and a growing body of knowledge about effective organisational strategies to promote gender equality.

Patterns of segregation can be vertical or horizontal. Usually, patterns of segregation are described as vertical, whereby men dominate higher-level, higher status and higher paid occupations. Vertical segregation, often likened to glass ceilings, prevent women progressing to senior roles. Horizontal segregation can be likened to ‘walls’ which separate men and women from working together. Both forms of segregation narrow opportunities for women and men, and contribute to the gender pay gap.

Next steps

The Fair Work Commission commissioned the study into gender-based occupational segregation to inform its work to promote gender equality. In 2022 the Fair Work Act was amended to enable the Fair Work Commission to act on its own initiative to vary award rates for reasons of work value, and eliminate gender-based undervaluation, rather than respond to an equal remuneration case.

“Recent decades have shown that gender segregation and the gender pay gap are very entrenched features of the labour market,” says A/Prof. Cortis. “We can now expect to see an expanded role for gender equality in the Fair Work Commission’s decision-making processes. This has potential to make a real difference for working women.”