young australian designers are leading the fight for equal pay

Despite being an industry dominated by women, the gender pay gap in fashion is considerably wider than the national average. But now a new generation of creatives are leading the fight for equal pay and fair working conditions.

by Melisa Gray-Ward
22 March 2017, 12:25am

In Australia, the national gender pay gap averages at a relatively high 16.2 per cent. New Zealand are doing slightly better with a disparity of around 12 to 13 per cent. But in fashion, an industry largely populated and lead by women, the gender fiscal divide looms. In 2016, 76.2 per cent of clothing manufacturer employees in Australia were female, however the full-time employees among them were paid about 23 per cent less than men. The gap among clothing, footwear and personal accessory retail workers is even larger at 26.5 percent among full-time employees, 84 percent of whom are women.

It's not an issue that's exclusive to our shores, but rather permeates the industry across the globe. But while abroad we're beginning to see large brands such as Stella McCartney and the Gap pledged to close a gender pay gap, in Australia the job has largely been taken up by smaller, independent, female designers.

Kathryn Jamieson, founder and designer of Melbourne-based label Gun Shy, is one of a growing number of local labels that are striving towards wage parity for workers and consumers identifying as women. This International Women's Day, Jamieson announced a new pricing structure to address the current gender pay gap. The initiative enables women to purchase a piece from Gun Shy's high-end, handmade faux fur collection at a price reduced between 15 to 18 per cent. "I specifically decided to reduce the price for women because it is a reduced wage they are receiving. I also thought men would complain less if it appeared that they weren't paying more. They aren't actually, they are paying the retail price. It is just women are paying less."

As an independent designer, Jamieson has more autonomy over her business decisions. But she also shoulders 100 percent of the responsibility when it comes to risk. "I was incredibly nervous about doing this," she says. "It is something I've wanted to do for the last two years but was too scared about the backlash. I have a lot of male customers and drag queen customers and I was very nervous about how they would respond." But she has been surprised by the initial reaction. "The response was so overwhelmingly positive, I was shocked," she says.

READ: fashion brands pledge to close the gender pay gap

Gun Shy isn't the first label to experiment with payment models: it's a business method gaining popularity as brands present cost transparency at point of sale, or in US brand Everlane's case, even invite consumers to 'choose what you pay'. However, Gun Shy is one of a few brands in Australia explicitly addressing the gender pay gap. Everlane and other brands' transparent pricing is designed to show consumers each product's true value and create brand loyalty.

But while Jamieson's efforts are a strong example of how individual brands can alleviate the pressure of pay breakdowns for their own customer's lives, the larger issues exist along the production and supply chain, where murkier practices make it difficult to assign precise costs. Reflecting on the insidious wage breakdown across production Jamieson reflects, "Sewing is traditionally women's work. I think that is why the pays are so low and not valued."

Tuyen Nyugen, co-founder of Sydney swimwear label her., has long understood fashion's true cost, having been raised by parents who were manufacturing clothes before she was even born. "It's been very insightful, growing up and being exposed to this industry at an early age - I witnessed the amount of hours, care and craft that went into every single garment."

Her early exposure to the industry informed how she and her. co-founder Michael Lim established their business. "I have witnessed the demise of the Australian manufacturing industry 10 to 15 years ago, where a majority of Australian labels shifted manufacturing offshore in search of lower labour and material costs," she says. "This directly affected my parents and many other families, which was quite devastating to see." For her, she took action by deciding to keep production local — not only creating and sustaining local jobs, but also allowing her to be accountable for the treatment and pay of workers. "This isn't only just about fashion, but the communities and the people that are involved," she reflects.

Of course, pay equality isn't solely about what take-home salary women can negotiate, but extends to companies' willingness to provide flexible working conditions, from support for carers, to paid parental leave and career development opportunities. The Social Studio is a Melbourne based not-for-profit social enterprise offering TAFE level training, work experience and employment in fashion. Within the clothing label, retail shop and digital printing studio, Executive Officer Eugenia Flynn has identified the need for awareness when it comes to professional pathway development, especially for women. "In terms of our training, we try to make it as wraparound and flexible as possible," she says. "We obviously want to provide training that is appropriate, relevant, and of a very high standard and quality. But we also understand the intersectional nature of the groups of people that they have because they come from, quite often, marginalised communities in terms of being from refugee or migrant backgrounds."

While female-fronted brands such as Thinx have come under fire in recent months for using feminism to shift product while simultaneously failing to appropriately remunerate staff, it's important to stay positive about the potential for strong female leadership to evoke change. "When you have women in positions of power, that attracts other women and creates a better working environment for women," confirms Flynn. For them the payoff of committing to an an adaptable workplace has been invaluable — professionally as well as ethically. "We make it possible for the women in our team to work from home on their own schedule. This flexibility allows them to support both their families and careers," Nguyen adds. "With everything being designed and manufactured in Australia, it has given us the opportunity to ensure everyone in the supply chain is treated fairly."


Text Melisa Gray-Ward
Image via Her.

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