An appropriate newsflash yesterday for International Women’s Day. After analyzing Inland Revenue data, the Women’s Ministry has found that women almost immediately begin to be paid less than men who have the same tertiary education qualifications. That gender pay gap starts at 6% on average after the first year in the workplace, and reaches 20% in some professions. So much for the encouraging data, NZUSA women’s rights officer Sophie Blair pointed to yesterday about the trend of high participation rates by women in tertiary education. While welcome, that rise in participation also seems to be producing a more highly qualified supply of female workers who cost less to employ.
On the evidence, the market is therefore doing what markets always do – it is exploiting existing social distortions in the name of profit. Historically, every major advance in workplace conditions has been through outside intervention, usually forced upon employers by government. In the blatant case of gender-based pay discrimination (which is evidently rife even at the upper end of the wage and qualifications spectrum) government will once more need to take the lead. Yet so far, the Key government’s response could hardly be more lame.
For example : when announcing her own Ministry’s damning findings Women’s Affairs Minister Pansy Wong called for a further 10 year study of 6,000 graduates that might provide some ‘fresh insights’ into the issue. Yep – having found evidence of blatant and widespread discrimination, let’s not actually do anything about it. Instead, let’s waste another decade on studying why and whether it exists. Meanwhile, the government seems to be set on changing workplace laws and enacting economic policies that are likely to have adverse impacts on women in particular.
As CTU president Helen Kelly said yesterday, the government disbanded the Pay and Employment Equity Unit within the Department of Labour last year. In the future, it also promises to enact workplace reforms that are likely to be particularly harmful to women workers :
“The changes that the Government is signalling in personal grievance procedures, the Holidays Act, and in the review of the vulnerable workers legislation would all impact heavily on women because of their disproportionate representation in certain kinds of work.”
At the same time, Kelly added, the government is virtually ensuring that the negative impacts of policy on women will not even be considered, let alone reversed. Men continue to dominate the working groups and expert panels that are advising the Key government on the future direction of social and economic policy :
….All these working groups – on tax, ACC stocktake, capital infrastructure, the 2025 Task Force – have been dominated by men and in some cases contain no women at all.”
The government may believe there are few votes at stake among educated women. It may have calculated that most women who feel concerned about the social injustice of gender discrimination in the workplace are likely to be centre left voters, with the remainder being business women willing to combat purely by their own efforts any personal discrimination that they encounter in the workplace. Exploitation can only thrive when the victim has internalized it as being their duty to endure, and surmount.
By the next election though, this disregard for issues and policies that impact severely on women could look at best like stupidity, and at worst, like arrogance. Last November, the Key government ignored a petition calling for it to take action on gender-based pay inequality. It could at least begin by showing that it takes the gender pay gap seriously, and that it has a plan to ensure New Zealand lives up to our local and international obligations on this issue. Here and elsewhere though, rich white men do tend to govern purely for the benefit of other rich white men.