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A Woman’s Worth: The Gender Pay Gap in New Zealand

By Taryn Dryfhout

Recent statistics show that the gap between what men and women are earning in this country has barely shifted in almost 20 years. It is clear that inequality is still rife in New Zealand, despite efforts to bring us closer to a society that is equal for all.

The Law

Technically, the law protects both men and women from inequality such as this. The Equal Pay Act 1972 states that if work requires the same, or similar, degree of skill, effort and responsibility, then both male and female employees should be paid the same, otherwise the pay difference must be regarded as gender-based, and consequently, is illegal. Similarly, both the Human Rights Act 1993 and the Employment Relations Act 2000 prohibit the discrimination, or differing conditions, based on gender.

How much are New Zealand women earning?

A recent report commissioned by the Ministry for Women reveals that the gender pay gap is currently sitting at 12.7 per cent, compared with 12.8 per cent in the 1990s. Across the entire national workforce, median hourly rates were compared between men and women in full, and part-time work, with the average hourly rate for a man currently sitting at $29 per hour, and women trailing along behind at just $25 an hour.

The report also revealed that women are now, on average, more highly qualified than men – a shocking fact, given they are still sitting at the lower end of the pay scale. Minister for Women, Paula Bennett, has commented on the results, describing them as disappointing and has stated that attempts to close this gap will be among her top priorities in the immediate future.

The larger divide

While New Zealand doesn’t fair that well on the world stage for gender pay equality, there are additional factors within our country’s workforce which raise concern. According to research, the gaps between men and women are much larger within certain sectors, and when race is considered.

Not only do women earn less than men, the Human Rights Commission found that the gap is significantly influenced by ethnicity, with the median hourly wage gap between a European male and European female sitting at 12.4 per cent, and the gap between a European male and a Pacific woman coming in at 24.4 per cent.

The pay gap has also shown to be larger in occupations that are dominated by females. For example, nursing and aged care, as industries, tend to be over-represented by women. These industries are paid lower on average than industries, such as construction, which are more heavily dominated by men.

Causes for the gender pay gap

In the past, factors such as differences in the level of education women had, and the industries in which they chose to work were contributing to the gender pay gap. However, the most recent report shows that these factors can only explain a small portion of the current pay gap, and are not able to offer explanation for a large proportion of it.

While most people would be inclined to point the finger at motherhood, the findings in the report don’t suggest this is the case, with research showing the pay gap manifests itself before women have children. New Zealand women are stepping into this reality very early on in their working lives.

The presence of these unexplainable factors tells us that no matter how much we deny it, there are still deeply held beliefs about how men and women should work – what jobs are appropriate for men and women, what domestic duties are associated with men and women, and how hard working and valuable men and women are in the workplace. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we are operating in a biased society that generalises based on gender, disadvantaging women financially and making it difficult for them to operate as social and economic equals with their male peers. While it is against the law to discriminate, the current state of the gender pay gap in this country raises questions regarding how pervasive this intentional and unintentional bias is in the job market, and how this can be policed.

A contributing factor is also the nature of the work that women are looking for. Studies show that women are three times more likely to work part-time than men, and are also more likely to take career breaks. Since fewer high-level positions are available on a part-time basis, and would not be accommodating to women wanting to take a career break, it would seem reasonable to conclude that women are more likely to miss out on high-level opportunities and will have more difficulty getting their career back on track when they resume employment.

How do we close the gap?

Given that much of the gap cannot be explained, addressing the causes is not going to resolve the gap quickly.

There needs to be sustained action over time, including changing the attitudes and biases of people about women and men in the workforce. In addition, women need to take more responsibility for their careers by having the confidence to negotiate higher wages for the skills and effort that they bring to the table.

Employers also need to start paying their female staff the same wage, for the same work and having the same skills. Employers will be quick to say things like ‘it’s much more complex than that’ and ‘we will take a look at it’ but if the gap is to close, it’s going to need employers to take responsibility for their role in running a ‘boys club’, perpetuating sexism in the job market by paying lower wages to female workers.

Why is equal pay important?

Equal pay is not only better for women, but it has benefits to the wider society and economy of our country. Paying women fairly reduces their reliance on benefits and brings economic independence, allowing them to contribute to their student loans and debts, as well as contributing to their retirement savings and to the national taxes. Fair pay will also boost the female employment rate – an aspect which could potentially raise New Zealand’s dollar value.

Providing equal pay for all women means valuing our women, giving them the dignity and respect they deserve inside, and outside, of the workforce. For a country that first secured women the vote, we are failing to progress and offer our women equal choice, equal opportunities, and equal value in our jobs. The Human Rights Commission stated that “The gender pay gap [in New Zealand] has been a systemic and enduring inequality for women and is a fundamental breach of human rights.” New Zealand should be at the forefront of equality, standing on the world stage showing other countries how it’s done. Instead we are perpetuating inequality.

Figures have projected that women will not see equal pay until 2095 – even our children may not be here to see equality.  Until we can close this gap, the New Zealand job market is still a man’s world.

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