Women still fighting for equality 126 years after suffrage, says DHB admin worker

Over a century after New Zealand women won the right to vote, thousands of working women feel the sting of gender discrimination in every pay cheque.

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Nancy McShane, PSA Women's Network Co-Convenor.

The 1893 Electoral Act gave women the right to choose their political representatives, but campaigners say low pay in female dominated professions puts harsh limitations on the choices available to women today.

Nancy McShane is an administration worker for Canterbury District Health Board, a delegate and elected official of the Public Service Association, and a resident of Christchurch’s eastern suburbs.

As a medical secretary, she books clinics, manages patient wait lists and prepares the notes relied upon by doctors and nurses when treating patients.

Almost everyone she works alongside is female, and hearing from those who struggle to get by on less than the Living Wage motivates her to campaign for change.

"So many professions currently going through the equal pay journey are about caring for others, and yet they are so undervalued by our society," says Ms McShane.

"A lot of admin work like mine was in the 1970s done by men and the pay rate was comparable to what you’d make as a carpenter. Why have we gone backwards now that women do it?"

The PSA raised an equal pay claim with DHBs around the country in April 2018, now endorsed by 6000 admin and clerical union members.

Evidence detailed in the claim suggests the hospital admin and clerical workforce is around 90 percent female.

Ms McShane has been actively involved in supporting this effort, both as a member of the union’s DHB sector committee and as co-convenor of the PSA Women’s Network.

"We need to change our view of what constitutes a female role and a male role, but in the meantime we should at least value these roles equally. The gender pay gap hurts both men and women," she says.

"When men work in predominantly female industries they end up on low pay as well, and if a man loses his job he may have to rely on his wife’s income. Who does it benefit if hers is less than his?"

She says the campaign is about turning the hope Kate Sheppard had for the future in 1893 into New Zealand women’s 2019 reality.

"She was a farsighted woman. When she went for the vote, she saw women and children living in dire poverty, trapped, with no redress for their situations. By gaining the vote women could have more ability to make positive change in society, but Kate Sheppard never thought the vote was everything and it ended there," says Ms McShane.

"We are 126 years down the road and we still don’t have equal pay. It should have been won a long time ago, but we can still be the first in the world to achieve it now. Wouldn’t that be something to be proud of?"

Ms McShane urges every New Zealander to vote in the upcoming local body elections for candidates who commit to support equal pay, and she calls on the government to strengthen pay equity legislation currently under consideration.

"It’s not just my colleagues who are standing up for equality. Local government library assistants this year launched a campaign, Oranga Tamariki social workers won 30% pay rises last year, and women working for social service provider NGOs have just announced a claim of their own," she says.

"Until all of us are guaranteed a fair go, none of us can truly be confident we’ll get one. We made a good start on it in 1893 but there’s still a long way to go. I believe if we keep pushing together, we’ll get there soon."

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DHB Admin workers present Heart of the Hospital petition to Parliament, April 2019. Nancy McShane kneeling in centre. More info: https://www.psa.org.nz/media/news/heart-of-the-hospital-petition-to-parliament/