Shining a light on women’s pay

Secrecy around pay can disadvantage women.

Carol Beaumont

Carol Beaumont pictured with the Suffragettes' petition to Parliament for the right to vote, along with a placard urging women to get back to the kitchen.

It seems women and their unions have been banging on forever about women’s pay – and yet the gender pay gap is as entrenched as ever. On average in New Zealand, for every dollar a man earns, a woman earns around 86 cents.

It’s a substantial cost to women and their families, says Labour MP Carol Beaumont. “We’re talking about a lot of money that women don’t have to support their families, save for retirement, and to provide choices and opportunities. The lifetime consequences are huge.”

Research by the Ministry of Education and reports by university vice chancellors show that, in many professions, women graduates start their careers earning up to several thousand dollars less than male graduates doing the same work. And as they progress in their careers, women’s pay can fall further behind.  

These are young women straight women out of university so their lower rates of pay cannot be attributed to taking time off in their careers to care for children, says Carol.

There are many reasons for the pay gap but a big one that still exists in parts of the public sector is the secrecy that surrounds what people are paid. There is compelling evidence that men negotiate higher starting rates than women and that difference continues.  

The Human Rights Commission has proposed, and drafted, a Pay Equality Bill that would, among other things, give employees the right to know what people around them are being paid. It’s only by shining a light on pay that we can know if the system is fair or is discriminatory.  

The bill would also require all employment agreements to inlcude an equality clause, and would establish the right to be free from the discrimination of inequality of pay.

Both Carol and Green MP Catherine Delahunty, who herself has drafted a right-to-know bill, have urged the government to take up the bill but without success.

“Pay equity issues have slipped down the priority list and we are going backwards. It’s not only that women’s work is valued less than that of men’s, women are now being paid less for the same work. Something we thought had stopped back in the sixties,” says Carol.

She points out that two incoming National governments have quickly dismantled mechanisms to reduce the gender pay gap. The first thing the new government did in 1990 was to scrap the pay equity legislation; again, in 2008, the government moved quickly to get rid of the pay and employment equity unit.

“So now Labour is going to have a third solid attempt,” says Carol. “Our policy will be based on the right to equal pay and a legal duty by employers to advance equality in their workplaces, whether it’s to do with pay or with training and career opportunities.”

Lifting the minimum wage also has to be part of the equation, she says. “This will immediately help women, often Pacific and Maori women, in the low-paid caring and support occupations. Pay equity is very much a low-pay issue; that’s why lifting the minimum wage is part of Labour’s women’s policy.”

But, she adds, all these measures need to be backed by collective bargaining if they are to stick. “Collective bargaining is the quickest way to make progress.”   

There is no single mechanism to achieving equal and equitable pay, she says. It’s a combination of good employment law, transparent pay systems, workplaces and structures that support families rather than disadvantage them, and a firm resolve by government to end this unjust treatment of women in the workforce.


This article is from the November 2011 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.