Viva Energy could be one of the ‘bloke-iest’ companies in Australia; it has a branded motor racing team and sells industrial lubricants and grease.

It’s an unlikely suspect to be bridging the gender pay gap — but that’s exactly what’s happening after the company made deliberate changes to get more women into roles traditionally dominated by men.

“I don’t particularly like the outcomes that I see for women in our company, and in the country, generally, from an inequity point of view,” says chief executive Scott Wyatt.

“The pay gap really helps to crystallise the issues, because it’s material … it’s important to people.”

To reduce its gender pay gap, the company talked to other organisations about what works and what has been a challenge.

It then devised a plan, sold it to staff and — as Mr Wyatt describes it — went about putting it into action.

“If you make decisions and drive that change, you can actually deliver outcomes in a short space of time,” he says.

“It doesn’t take forever to get to where we want to be.”

Before 2019, the gender pay gap at the company wasn’t even published.

Last year, it was 9.9 per cent — less than half of what it is at most businesses — and Mr Wyatt is now re-doubling the company’s efforts.

“I’m proud of the changes that we’ve made in a relatively short space of time to drive to deliver a pay gap outcome that’s half the national average,” he says.

“I think it’s a really significant achievement. [I’m] really proud of that.”

The gender pay gap — the difference between what men and women are paid in the same organisation — is a stubborn problem.

The gap is different to equal pay for equal work; a concept that has been in employment law for decades mandating that men and women be paid the same for the same work.

The national ‘total remuneration’ gender pay gap is 22.8 per cent, meaning that for every $1 a man makes, women earn, on average, 77.2c.

Over a year, that’s a $25,596 difference.

That includes base salary, overtime, bonuses and additional payments. Using the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) survey of average weekly earnings the ‘base salary’ gender pay gap is 13 per cent.

The gender pay gap is created by factors including gender-dominated or previously segregated industries, women being more likely to have time out of the workforce to raise children and the history of gender discrimination against women.

An exposing element aimed at fixing it comes in early 2024, when the gap at every company with more than 100 employees will be published by the government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).

When this happened in the UK, the gap got smaller. And some big-name companies were embarrassed by the revelation that they pay women less.

But there’s a stark divide within industries between the best-performing businesses and the worst performers, and soon we’ll know who they are.

A new report makes a seemingly obvious but important point: Companies that want to reduce their gender pay gap and take steps to do so — do.

“You see this very strongly come out among ‘best-performing’ businesses, who have everything from pay audits to all the way to action plans that address [the gap],” report author Astghik Mavisakalyan, who is an associate professor of economics at Curtin University, said.

“It’s really ultimately about the commitment to gender equity.”

The good news from the Australian research is that employers taking serious, long-term action in their workplaces can smash their gender pay gap.

The hard news is that it means a company has to want to change.

“A lot of it comes down to rigid cultural norms that have been there over time,” Dr Mavisakalyan says.

“And institutional changes play a big role in changing cultural norms.”

The WGEA Gender Equity Insights Report details how companies are reducing their gender pay gaps.

It found:

The median improvement in the gender pay gap more than doubles over three years for businesses that examine the problem through a ‘gender pay gap audit’
The best-performing Australian companies recorded a 5.3 percentage point drop in their gender pay gaps in three years
The issue isn’t confined to particular industries. There’s a divide between the best-performing businesses in a sector and the worst
The report divided businesses into a “maturity framework” of how far along they are with progressing gender equality.

Dr Mavisakalyan uses the example of mining companies to explain the concept.

“You see that best-performing companies are multiple times more likely to adopt certain types of policies,” she says.

“Four times more likely to have target action plans … seven times more likely to have targets around specific pay gap targets.”

Companies that are “still early in their journey” don’t have that.

Kristen Hilton works with companies trying to reduce their gender pay gap, and says there’s no one single answer to the complex issue.

“This is about trying to unpick the fabric of discrimination and disadvantage that’s perhaps held women back,” she says.

This can mean looking at things like who gets access to overtime, what type of arrangements are in place for flexible work and where in organisations that men have taken on more lucrative roles.

Ms Hilton, Victoria’s former Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner, says the example of Viva Energy shows change can happen rapidly.

“With the right intent and really committed leadership, you get an environment where you are recruiting and retaining and promoting the best possible talent, irrespective of gender,” she says.

The looming publication of the gender pay gap at every employer with more than 100 staff is going to be an exposing day for some Australian businesses, which Ms Hilton describes as a “motivating lever” for change.

“Organisations care what people think, she says.

“Showing that you are owning the issue and that you’re being transparent about what your gap is — and what you’re doing to solve it — is good from a reputational corporate point of view.”

But in the hard data and at the sites at which he works, Scott Wyatt sees the change.

“There’s very few meetings I go to now where there’s not good representation of men and women in the room,” he says.

“To get to 50 per cent across the whole company — all levels or roles — will take time.”

The pay gap at Viva Energy has been even smaller than it currently is, getting down to 3.6 per cent in 2020 with salaries affected by COVID lockdowns, slumping fuel consumption and limited overtime.

At its Geelong refinery, just 9 per cent of its operators were women in 2019.

In 2023 the percentage of female staff on the site — in well-paid jobs that can involve shift work and penalty rates — lifted from 23 per cent to 26 per cent.

“You’ve to got be courageous, right?” he says.

“Having made those early steps it’s now got that positive momentum.”

Mr Wyatt says he encourages other leaders and chief executives to make the changes needed to reduce the pay gap.

“We owe that to the women that work for us and the women that we want to work for us and the whole organisation,” he says.

“Let’s try and get there more quickly.”

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