Why is New Zealand lagging behind other countries on the issue of the gender pay gap?
Margaret Wilson is a former Attorney General, Minister of Labor and Associate Minister of Justice.
OPINION: Barriers to pay equity have been examined and studied until exhaustion. There’s little we don’t know about why a person’s gender determines your salary.
We can also venture that most people support the notion of equal pay, whether for the same work or of equal value. Why then is it taking so long to fix it and why has New Zealand lagged behind other countries on this issue?
Recent research exposing the Kiwisaver income gap between men and women comes as no surprise. Transparency is always the first step in identifying a problem and developing a lasting solution. The research made me think that this question has interested us since the 1890s, when the first feminists identified equal pay as a fundamental issue for women’s equality.
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For the past 120 years, women have campaigned for equal pay for equal work and work of equal value. The campaign has now grown to include pay parity for different ethnicities. Fundamentally, it is an expectation of fairness that “like people” will be treated the same when doing the same or similar work. It is this desire for fairness that has sustained the campaign over generations and is likely to continue in future generations.
The slow progress is explained by the fact that it is difficult to determine the value of work. Historically, for most employees, the value of their salary was negotiated between your employer and your union. These negotiations often reflected societal attitudes towards the role of women, entrenching discrimination. For example, some awards detailed rates of pay for men and rates for women, while some jobs were classified as female work.
It was women unionists in the public sector after World War II who led the campaign to make pay inequality visible and a political issue. Their success came in 1960 with the Public Sector Equal Pay Act. This effectively marked the start of current campaigns for women’s financial equality. It took another 12 years before the legal right to equal pay was extended to the private sector with the Equal Pay Act.
Did it make a difference? Yes, the pay gap has started to close but very slowly. Legal recognition is important. The short-lived Employment Equity Act attempted to narrow the gap further, but was quickly replaced by a proactive system that persisted for 20 years until the Equal Employment Opportunity Act Amendment Act remuneration. During these 20 years, there has been a decline in unions and collective bargaining and an increase in individual wage bargaining.
Although the gap in the average hourly rate has closed at 9.5% currently, the reality for many women is that the gap is much higher. It all depends on who you work for and your ability to negotiate. The disparities among and between types of work have been revealed by the reports of the Human Rights Commission – New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation. The value of these reports was that they made visible what was invisible. Unfortunately, the Commission’s decision to discontinue this research marked a step back from transparency.
This is why MindTheGap’s strategy of transparent pay rates is so important. Although the campaign is voluntary, past experience indicates that voluntary registration will not work in the short or long term. It must be compulsory and that appears to be the conclusion of Parliament’s select committee on education and the workforce which recently recommended a ‘comprehensive pay transparency regime’ requiring employers above a certain size to address inequalities. Such a measure is long overdue and would bring New Zealand into line with other countries.
Basically we have tried every possible way to fix the problem. Hopefully, the current labor market reality and a general shift in public attitudes will see a significant shift towards fairness when assessing the value of work, regardless of who performs it.