What the Lisa Wilkinson story says about equal pay for equal work

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You don't need to be a fan of breakfast TV to relish the Lisa Wilkinson story. It presses all the right buttons - disbelief at the sheer cluelessness of the men in suits at Channel Nine, followed by the schadenfreude of watching them wipe the egg off their faces just hours later when she announced her new gig at Ten.

No offence to Karl Stefanovic, but even I knew that Wilkinson was the real star of Today. And the public knew it too, with scores of her fans taking to social media for a collective "sucked in, Channel Nine".

The story also reveals a lot about the gender pay gap, and how we recognise and reward female talent. Or rather, how we don't.

Most people acknowledge the principle of equal pay for equal work. The argument gets bogged down in defining "equal work".

I spoke about this with Swinburne University's associate professor of management and marketing, Simon Pervan, who has researched the gender pay gap. He says in the world of commercial TV, "equal work" is not about job titles and hours worked. Rather, it's about star pulling power and its effect on audience ratings and advertising revenue.

Other newspapers have reported that Channel Nine offered Wilkinson a whopping $1.8 million, a $700,000 pay rise but still short of Stefanovic's reported $2 million package. I don't know if these figures are accurate.

The network argues that its new offer gave pay parity to Wilkinson and Stefanovic for their Today duties and the extra salary for Stefanovic was compensation for his other roles as a presenter on 60 Minutes and host of This Time Next Year.

That's an admission from Channel Nine that it's been paying Wilkinson less until this point. She's been co-host of Today for 10 years.

My colleague Michael Lallo, who's far more knowledgeable about TV than me, rubbishes Nine's argument. He points out Wilkinson was keen to expand her role, while Stefanovic took multiple breaks from Today.

Without being party to the negotiations, I can't be definitive. What I can say is that when it comes down to an individual case, there are always excuses to explain away a pay gap.

The real point is that the pay gap at Today fits into a broader pattern.

We know, because it was leaked in 2013, that the ABC's male stars are (or were) paid a lot more than their female stars. At the time Q&A host Tony Jones was paid an annual salary of $355,789, while 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales was paid $280,400.

We know it's the same at the BBC and for women in Hollywood.

And we know it's true for chief executives and senior business leaders because corporate salaries for listed companies need to be disclosed to shareholders.

Now, you might think "So what? These people are rich, or at least wealthy".

But it's not just true for elites. Workplace Gender Equality Agency figures show female graduates earn 4 per cent less than their male peers in the same jobs, and the gap widens as women progress up the career ladder.

The gender pay gap is clearly not about "merit" if it starts with graduates who are untested and green.

And it's not just a matter of women becoming better negotiators, since a series of Harvard Business School studies prove women are penalised for asking for more money.

The real culprit is that managers' unconscious biases mean candidates or employees are perceived to have more merit if they fit into preconceived notions about what merit looks like. That's not just a problem for women; it disadvantages anyone who's not male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, and probably privately educated.

Pervan's research into the gender pay gap in the tourism industry, corrected for any confounding factors such as education levels and length of experience, found some of it could not be explained by anything except discrimination.

Could the answer be increased transparency - that is, publishing information on how much people are paid? The public embarrassment might goad companies into action and also give employees ammunition for pay negotiations.

After all, for Wilkinson to effectively push for equal pay, she needed to know how much her co-star earned.

Perhaps the female talent at the ABC and SBS should be cheering One Nation's attempts to force the broadcaster to publicly disclose all salaries over $200,000. I'm sure pay negotiations were a little more robust in the year or two after the salaries were first leaked in 2013.

Pervan says the public service and universities tend to have smaller pay gaps than the private sector. It's likely that's in part because most public servants and university employees know their colleagues' gradings and therefore pay bands.

Disclosure of corporate salaries is probably one of the biggest causes of chief executive salary inflation - because nobody wants to be average or below average. While I'd argue excessive chief executive salaries are not great for society, it's self-serving for businesses to cultivate such a culture of secrecy around pay for the rest of the workforce. It shouldn't be taboo to compare notes with your colleagues.

Another way to achieve the goal of transparency, without sacrificing privacy, is for the business to appoint a private auditor to crunch the aggregated numbers on pay disparities by demographic and seniority and then publish the findings.

Knowledge is power.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a Fairfax Media columnist and editor. Facebook: /caitlinfitzsimmons. Twitter: @niltiac

This story What the Lisa Wilkinson story says about equal pay for equal work first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.