Worth Fighting For

by Catriona MacLennan

The Battle to Bridge the Gender Pay Gap in New Zealand

When and if they are released, a set of reports on the pay and employment conditions for women in education sector are expected to boost a campaign for pay equity – by providing clear evidence of lower pay and worse conditions for women.

The Pay and Employment Equity Review Compulsory Schooling Sector Project Report was prepared in 2008 for the previous government, and the Pay and Employment Equity Reports (Compulsory Schooling and Kindergarten) were written in February 2009.

These documents are understood to show that female principals, teachers and school support staff are paid less than their male counterparts, and are passed over for promotion. However, the papers have yet to be publicly released.

Minister of Education Anne Tolley in May refused to release the 2008 document under the Official Information Act, stating that she had decided to release it publicly, and that it would be available soon.

The documents released to date consist of 23 pages, with approximately 21 ½ pages comprising only blacked-out typeface.

The first report referred to above – ie, from 2008 – was prepared by the Ministry of Education, the New Zealand School Trustees Association, the NZEI, the PPTA, the PSA and the Service and Food Workers’ Union.

The tripartite group investigated three questions –

*whether men and women received an equitable share of rewards

*whether men and women participated equally in all areas of schools, and

*whether men and women were treated with respect and fairness.

One of the few pages which was not blacked out states that the report identified many positive areas where pay and employment equity were in evidence. “It also identifies issues where it was perceived that, at least in some schools, a gender equity issue existed. These issues are not in disagreement. However, the description of the cause of the issue and the recommended responses are proving contentious.”

The document went on to say that it was likely that the parties would recommend that the minister consider pay investigations for cleaners and for teacher aides.

The documents from 2009 – the Compulsory Schooling and Kindergarten report – identified 17 issues where it was perceived that, at least in some schools, a gender equity issue existed. 51 recommendations were made, but these were also blacked out.

School support staff are overwhelmingly female, and many of them earn only 44 cents an hour more than the minimum wage of $12.50 an hour. They are among the hundreds of thousands of New Zealand women who work full-time but still take home considerably less money than male workers.

The Equal Pay Act was passed in New Zealand in 1972, with the aim of making provision “for the removal and prevention of discrimination, based on the sex of the employees, in the rates of remuneration of males and females in paid employment.”

Few women then would have imagined that, close to four decades later, there would still be a yawning gulf between male and female pay rates.

In 1975, women’s average hourly pay rate was 75 per cent of the male rate. 30 years’ later, in 2005, it had risen only to 86 per cent.

(Just how badly women are doing financially is even more starkly demonstrated by the median annual income figures over the 30 year period. In 1975, the female median annual income was just 55 per cent of the male figure, while in 2005 it was 69 per cent.)

The latest pay figures available from Statistics New Zealand are those from the March 2009 quarterly employment survey.They show that the average female weekly wage figure, including overtime, was $847.15 across all surveyed industries. The figure for men was $1042.05 – an extra $194.90 a week.

Examination of the average wage figures for the past six years shows that the pay differential has remained almost static. It fell to $192.40 in the March 2004 quarter, before rising to $202.88 in the March 2007 quarter, but remained close to $200 throughout the period.

The figures for Maori women are even worse: they earn just 86.1 per cent of the average pakeha women’s salary. What this shows is that no progress at all was made towards pay equity in those years and that, in some years, the relative position of women actually worsened.

So what is to be done about this ? Equal pay acts passed in many countries around four decades ago were designed to ensure that women were paid the same amount as men for doing exactly the same jobs. Prior to that, it had been both acceptable and legal to pay women less than men for the same work.

The Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union began campaigning for equal pay for women in 1897, and the National Council of Women and other women’s organisations continued the battle for 75 years until the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1972.

However, what rapidly became apparent was that major gender divisions in the workforce meant that women were still taking home far smaller average pay packets than men.

Almost half of New Zealand’s female workers are in occupations which have more than 70 per cent of women workers.

For example, in 2006 there were more than 210,000 employees in the public service and the public health and education sectors.

Women comprised 59.4 per cent of public service employees, and 80 per cent of the workforce in the public health sector.

More than twice as many women as men were employed in kindergartens, state and state-integrated schools, the Correspondence School, and tertiary education institutions.

Occupations which are female-dominated have, in many cases, had far lower pay rates than comparable male-dominated occupations.

In 2006, the gender pay gap for the public service was 16 per cent; while for the health sector it was 35 per cent.

The gap was 11 per cent in primary education, six per cent in secondary education and 22.2 per cent in the tertiary sector.

The concept of equal pay for work of equal value was accordingly developed to address that issue: that women should receive the same pay as men for doing comparable jobs involving comparable skills, years of training, responsibility, effort and working conditions.

One comparison often used is that of nurses and police officers.

Processes are developed for comparing similar occupational groups and measuring differences in pay and other employment conditions.

The Labour Government in 2003 set up a taskforce to advise on how the factors contributing to the gender pay gap applied in particular parts of the public service and in the public health and education sectors.

The taskforce produced a report titled Pay and Employment Equity in the Public Service and the Public Health and Public Education Sectors.

The document made five pages of recommendations, including –

*the government making a commitment to steady and measurable progress towards the goal of pay equity

*the establishment of processes and mechanisms to address the range of employment equity factors contributing to the gender pay gap in the public service and the public health and education sectors

*the creation of a dedicated Pay and Employment Equity Unit in the Department of Labour to oversee the implementation of a five year action plan

*a tripartite steering group, informed by pay and employment equity expertise, to lead and evaluate the implementation of the five year action plan

*the design and implementation of an audit and response plan process in the public service and the public health and education sectors

*establishment of a process for remedial settlements of pay equity claims

*creation of a tripartite process for developing core, minimum employment standards for pay and employment equity in the three sectors

*the development of a phase 2 action plan by December 2004 to reduce the gender pay gap and advance equal employment opportunities for employees of crown entities, SOEs, crown companies and employees whose work was funded by the Government through outsourcing contracts, such as cleaners and caretakers; and a tripartite process to consider the risks and benefits of a responsible contractor policy applying minimum employment standards to those receiving government funding.

The report also stressed the importance of the concept of pay equity being linked with that of employment equity.

“Employment equity” refers to the other factors which contribute to low female wages, including childcare responsibilities and problems in accessible cheap, reliable childcare; responsibility for parents or other family members; difficulties in accessing training; and discriminatory attitudes.

The Government responded to the taskforce in 2004 by creating the Pay and Employment Equity Unit and charging it with implementing the pay and employment equity plan of action.

The action plan set a key goal of ensuring that, by 2008, “genuine and durable pay and employment equity for women will be a feature of the New Zealand Public Service and public health and employment sectors, the gender pay gap in those sectors will have been significantly closed, and all practicable steps to close the gender pay gap will have been taken.”

That goal plainly was not achieved.

As the statistics quoted above show, the gap between male and female average weekly wages in 2003 was $197.11, while in 2009 it was $194.90.

Developments this year present even greater cause for concern about whether any substantial progress towards pay and employment equity will be made in the near future.

State Services Minister Tony Ryall in February announced the axing of two investigations aimed at improving the pay and conditions for female social workers at Child Youth and Family Services, and (the mainly female) school support workers.

Female social workers are paid 9.5 per cent less than their male colleagues.

Mr Ryall said that continuing with the investigations would “generate an additional form of remuneration pressure that is unaffordable in the current economic and fiscal environment.”

And on 13 May, Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson announced that the Pay and Employment Equity Unit would be dis-established as part of a reprioritising of government spending.

“The unit has worked hard researching the cause behind New Zealand’s gender pay gap and that work remains to be a valuable source of information,” she said.

“But, ultimately, achieving the goal of closing that pay gap can’t be realised by having a singular focus on the state sector. This issue is the responsibility of all employers and good employers will work to tackle it. Disestablishing the PEE will not mean women lose their voice on employment issues. The Government continues to receive advice from other groups such as the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women.”

Those announcements appeared to confirm that the Government would not be proceeding with further initiatives on pay equity. However, confusion was created in June when Women’s Affairs Minister Pansy Wong announced that her ministry had received an additional $2 million over four years to do more research and policy work on the gender pay gap.

Ms Wong said that the money would help the ministry to provide “well-researched advice on the pay differential and other pay and employment issues”.

“The pay gap between men and women has been at about 12 per cent for the past decade and the Government is committed to addressing this issue and working towards closing the gap. One of the barriers is occupational segregation, which limits women’s employment choices. To achieve real change, we must ensure that women’s skills are fully developed and recognised – for the benefit of themselves, their families and for New Zealand as a whole.”

Ms Wong appeared to confirm a different approach from that of the previous government to pay equity when she went on to state that the money would be spent on “taking a fresh look at the causes of the gender pay gap and taking effective measures to reduce it,” although she did not spell out any details.

However, her reference to “occupational segregation” may indicate that she sees the path forward as lying in encouraging greater numbers of women into traditionally male-dominated occupations, rather than in progressing the concept of “equal pay for work of equal value.”

In Parliament on 18 June, Ms Wong was asked about what work she had directed the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to undertake to eliminate the gender pay gap.

She replied that she had asked the ministry to “take a policy role, in relation to the gender pay gap, that is broader than the pay and employment equity review and pay investigations. My ministry’s brief will address the following factors contributing to the gender pay gap: education qualifications; works experiences, including time out to care for children; and women being clustered in female-dominated, low-pay occupations.”

Ms Wong went on to say that “We will leave no stone unturned in trying to close the pay gap.” Questioned about what law changes the Government planned to deal with the issue, she stated that she was sure that her colleagues would consider legislative intervention if that was what was required.

She did not spell out what that might comprise.

A campaign has now been launched to press for pay and employment equity.

Labour MP Sue Moroney has started a petition calling on the Government to reinstate pay equity investigations in the public sector and to honour the results of those already completed. Rallies were held at Parliament and in Auckland on 30 June to protest at the scrapping of the pay equity investigations and the Pay and Employment Equity Unit, as well as the lack of progress towards closing the gender pay gap.

And the Public Service Association has filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission alleging that the canning of the pay equity investigations is discriminatory and a breach of the Human Rights Act.

New Zealand is not alone in witnessing renewed calls for progress in closing pay gaps between men and women in 2009. A 2008 report commissioned by the International trade Union Confederation surveyed 63 countries and found that there were significant gender pay gaps, averaging 15.6 per cent.

The figures ranged between 13 and 23 per cent, with the differential in some cases increasing with higher levels of education. The response to the continuing pay gap has varied in different countries.

In the Canadian province of New Brunswick, the Pay Equity Act 2009 covers all public servants and requires that female job classifications be evaluated and compared with male job classifications on the basis of skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions.

In the United States, Wall Street brokerage firm Morgan Stanley in July 2004 settled a sex discrimination suit brought by the Government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for US$74 million. The commission in its lawsuit alleged a pattern of discrimination that denied scores of women promotion and paid less productive men higher salaries.

However, despite the huge financial cost of the firm’s discriminatory actions, the message of the case appears not to have been heeded by other employers. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research has this year released a report showing that men out-earn women in nearly every occupation for which figures are collected.

In April, the Fair Pay Act of 2009 was introduced to address the wage gap between men and women for jobs of equal value. Congressional hearings are also being held into a GAO report examining the gender pay gap in the federal government.

The state of Wisconsin in June passed an Equal Pay Enforcement Act, but in the same month a Pay Equity Bill was defeated in Louisiana. In Australia, Western Australia has a larger gap between men’s and women’s wages than any other state. In the February 2004 quarter, Western Australian women employed full-time earned on average 22.6 per cent less than their male counterparts.

The national gender wage gap figure was 15.2 per cent. By November 2008, the Western Australian gap had widened to 27. 4 per cent, part of a 20-year-long increase. The Western Australian Pay Equity Unit was established in 2006 to address gender pay issues.

The picture is even worse for Australian women at the top of the ladder. Figures released this year by the government’s Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace agency show that women in chief executive officer roles earns 60.7 per cent less than men, those in finance positions earn 54.3 per cent less, and those in “other line or function” positions earn 68 per cent less.

And in Chile, it is only in 2009 that a law has been passed requiring employers to pay workers the same amount for equal work, regardless of gender.

However, back in New Zealand, it appears that the ball is in the Government’s court – firstly, to release the education sector reports and then to spell out exactly what it is going to do to put an end to the discrimination against women in pay rates, and in working conditions.

Catriona MacLennan is a south Auckland barrister, journalist and author.