Mind the pay gap

''That's women's work.'' Most enlightened people would probably not even think such a thing in today's society.

Most wary people who might secretly agree with the derogatory statement would probably still not voice it. But, in fact, there remains a substantial gap between the veneer of our egalitarian society and the underlying reality for many females.

The ripples are certainly beginning to be felt as the fight for gender pay equality in New Zealand rapidly gains momentum.

The New Zealand Education Institute this week notified its intention to seek redress under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act regarding pay for its education support workers - predom inantly women. That comes comes hot on the heels of a claim lodged in the High Court by the College of Midwives under the Bill of Rights Act.

Both come in the wake of the Service and Food Workers Union's landmark case taken on behalf of aged care worker Kristine Bartlett under the Equal Pay Act. Ms Bartlett was paid just over the minimum wage (currently $14.75) after 20 years in the sector.

While that case is back in the Employment Court to determine details, it did establish a legal principle that the Equal Pay Act could be used to compare pay rates between occupations, not just within them. As expected, the domino effect has begun in terms of other female intensive occupations.

The industry comparisons clearly highlight differences. The NZEI argues its education support workers are on a par with prison officers in terms of skills, responsibilities and demands, but pay rates are an average of $10 an hour less.

Midwives' take home annual pay ($100,000) is high but after expenses (including travel and equipment) amounts to less than $54,000. They are on call 24/7.

They argue they have taken over the role once done by GPs and their claim likens midwives to mechanical engineers. (The Government's careers website states trainee GPs usually earn $70,000-$175,000 and experienced GPs $113,000-$212,000, while graduate mechanical engineers earn $55,000-$65,000 and experienced ones up to $115,000 a year.)

And figures from Statistics NZ, the State Services Commission and others show on average women are paid $4 an hour less than men - which equates to a gap of about 14% of the average wage.

The fundamental assertion across the recent claims is that the jobs are underpaid because they are dominated by women.

Proving gender discrimination will be a high threshold however, and there is resistance from big business, small employers and the Government alike, for whom the ''fear factor'' looms large: the fear pay increases will cost businesses their viability, workers their jobs and our ''rock star'' economy the competitive edge.

On the other side of the equation are compelling arguments, however: some of the industries paying women low wages are making healthy profits; a respected workforce is a happier, more loyal and more productive one; and that the ''worth'' of women has been lost amid counting the ''costs''.

But, for many, it simply seems incredulous that - 122 years after New Zealand became the first country to grant universal suffrage - women still have to argue fundamental equality issues in court.

The things we tell ourselves and promote to the world about our egalitarian society are increasingly the stuff of myth, certainly not the reality for half our workforce.

Our failings over various women's rights issues have been flagged by the likes of the United Nations even as we preach to the world from the highest table at that institution. The lessons we teach our daughters about reaching for the stars are at odds with the glass ceiling reality.

We need to ask ourselves as a society do we respect women and women's roles? Our domestic violence rates, low numbers of females in senior roles, the push to return women to the workforce in low paid jobs rather than as mothers, and the continued fight for pay equality would all seem to indicate otherwise.

There is a long way to go to bridge the gaps: in pay, in opportunity and in attitude. If we don't, it is not only women who will pay the price, but society as a whole.



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