Brunswick cafe's witty 'man tax' sparks valuable debate on gender pay gap

A Melbourne cafe owner’s gently provocative and light-hearted initiative to draw attention to the lamentable reality that women continue to be paid much less than men and face manifold economic unfairness has been a resounding success.

For a week each month, Alex O’Brien’s Handsome Her cafe is charging men a (voluntary) “gender surcharge” of 18 per cent, reflecting the gap between average full-time wages for men and women. The money will be given to community organisations.

The move ignited a spirited debate on social media, and has been reported internationally, causing valuable community conversations in other nations, too. There has been much earnest criticism by those who feel Ms O’Brien is unduly discriminating against men. These people might want to lighten up a little and focus their indignation on the injustices women still face. Men hold the overwhelming majority of positions of power throughout the economy.

The injustice extends far beyond that. Global financial firm PwC calculates, for example, that were unpaid childcare, the overwhelming majority of which is done by women, included in the national accounts, it would be the biggest contributor to our economy, worth $345 billion – three times larger than the banking, finance and insurance sector. Global investment bank Goldman Sachs estimates that were women to access the workforce as readily as men, it would boost the size of Australia’s economy by more than 10 per cent.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, whose 35 members comprise most of the world’s leading economies, said in a recent report: “Australia’s relatively high childcare costs are one important factor contributing to the high ‘not in employment, education or training’ rates among young mothers with young children.” Women do more of the low-paid jobs; at every level of advancement, women are winnowed from contention. The higher the position, the harder it is for a woman to get appointed.

Handsome Her’s move is reminiscent of a recent witty protest by thousands of Icelandic women, who also earn 18 per cent less than men on average. They walked out of their workplaces at 2.38pm, reflecting the time after which they in effect work unpaid. That nation’s government has since announced a requirement that public and private companies pay employees equally “regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or nationality”.

There’s a lot to reform here. Handsome Her has been doing brisk business, serving women and men, since drawing attention to the need for change. Ms O’Brien is to be congratulated for encouraging people to discuss how best to achieve that overdue progress.

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