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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Equal pay for equal work: an election for women

While the newspapers continually focus on menstruation (like one big Steven King Carrie movie or anti-depressant ads from the 1950s), it is worth returning to the problem that motivated all this debate over Alasdair Thompson's comments. As a woman who is in both business and academic worlds, I have found much of the discussion precipitated by the Equal Pay Amendment Bill a rehash of various stereotypes, none of which address the very direct sexism that women face in the workplace. Hearing this described as purely a result of taking time out to have children by a Prime Minister who, until July this year, did not realize that there was a gender gap in pay in spite of having a 27.5% gendered pay gap in his own office, is simply glossing over the issues that women face in the workplace. It reminds me of when I first started university, when a much more powerful male professional I had only just met told me that I should not go to study as I would only end up being a drain on the taxpayer when I abandoned my career to have children.

The truth is, believe it or not, we women talk to each other. It's funny to note that the most vocal people over the Equal Pay Amendment Bill on forums are often men, who just rearticulate myths about why we should be not in the same position as men. Yet I could tell you so many stories of encounters by my friends and my colleagues of situations that they have been in where their gender has been frequently made an issue. Whether it be women getting breast implants to secure job promotions (sadly it worked - it was an industry well known amongst women for its sexism) or the much more innocuous having one's opinions ignored because they are not coming from a man's mouth, women know what it is like to be discriminated against. The fact is, to be a women is to encounter this on a regular basis as it is something that has been drummed into us for centuries. While many women treat this as an inconvenience that they must merely accept, it is ridiculous for the people touting such rubbish to think that women do not notice and discuss with each other latent sexism when they come across it. I know so many women who, due to their jobs, were not able to comment on Thompson's comments, yet are absolutely furious. Most women understand that when men recreate this kind of discrimination they don't understand what the shoe is like on the other foot.

The notion that a pay gap is natural purposely ignores the fact that while women have had the vote since 1893, they have really only had a shot at economic autonomy against the odds for 50 years or so in this country. The Second Wave of feminism brought us the contraceptive pill, the notion of equity in pay for the same job and for similar jobs, as well as the opportunity for the DPB. This to women meant the opportunity to actually be able to leave a man and be financially independent, and led to less stigmatization by society. Anyone who has forgotten how much of a battle this was for women should talk to their older relatives or view Annie Goldson's Sheilas: 28 Years On, which features excellent analysis on the position of women. There is something imminently chilling about seeing women marching for safer environments down Queen St and random men running up to punch them in anger.

The fact is, while men attempt to rationalize our pay gap, there are very few women that agree we should be paid less. Studies show we have to work harder to achieve, and there have been studies in the US that have shown that most employers prefer male candidates over female ones when it comes to particular roles (Crosby, Stockdale & Ropp, 2007: 195). As much as this election is being marked by race debate, it is also being punctuated by sexism, whereby women's independence is being linked to the erosion of the economy, with poor women who are being stereotyped as baby breeders receiving the blame. The fact is that we have an abysmal record of female participation in senior management and on boards, the latter of which NZ is being outrated by China (65% of NZ boards don't have women, China only has 39%, Australia 29%). That we are continually being told that this is something we can't afford in hard times is problematic, as we are one of the first groups to suffer and do not really benefit in the good times either.

As Scott Harris reports on Canada, economic booms don't necessarily translate to better pay or conditions for women, as policies tend to be geared towards benefiting higher earners. For example, Canada dropped from number one at the inception of the 1990s on the Gender Development Index to number 25 by 2006, a period that coincided with an economic boom. The reasons why conditions for women worsened during the bubble were complex and related to their access to opportunities: it is largely men that benefit as they are more likely to be working in managerial or infrastructure positions. In contrast, women are more concentrated in casual positions or lowly paid occupations.

This is not a result of women taking time out to have children. There are too many studies that prove that discrimination in today's society is alive and well. We do not get paid less because we want to be, or as the Herald editorial argues because we bring a different attitude to the workplace.

Listening to talkback, many employers are ringing in and categorizing the Equal Pay Amendment Bill as a return to communism where everyone knows each other's wages. This is a complete misrepresentation of the Bill in hand, and a complete misrepresentation of the issues. For example, studies by the National Equal Opportunities Network found:

Groups of women, for example education support workers in Nelson, women lawyers in Christchurch and Tairawhiti DHB employees, expressed frustration at the lack of progress in achieving gender equality at work, including pay and employment equity. Those in the public sector had been part of the Five Year Plan of Action to review and address pay and employment equity. Reviews were conducted across the public sector but response plans developed from the findings of the reviews are yet to be fully implemented. An education support worker in Nelson told us, “I don’t begrudge cleaners and caretakers a pay rise, but the unfairness is blatant. A cleaner earns more vacuuming than a teacher’s aide who tube-feeds and catheterises a student.” A union organiser said “my son works at a petrol station for more pay than caregivers, with fewer responsibilities and no poos”. A group of Canterbury women lawyers told us that they had to work twice as hard to be seen as equal and that if you asked to be paid at the same rate as men you were seen as “greedy, unreasonable and ungrateful”. “Nice girls don’t get the corner office (i.e. become a partner). You have to be ballsy, push your position and ask.”

There appears to be no systemic follow-up to review progress. The proposed roll out of the Pay and Employment Women into local government and the wider state sector (Phase 2) is voluntary and uptake has been extremely limited. The Chief Executive of the Gisborne District Council who undertook a pay and employment equity review said, “None of us set out to create injustices and inequity in our workplaces. Intuitively then, there’s no problem … however, I’ve realised it’s not enough to rely on intuition, hard data is needed.”

What the Equal Pay Amendment Bill attempts to do is address the discrepancies that are left by legislation that leaves women with no legal recourse to contest their position. This is a Bill that was supported by Labour, Greens and the Maori Party, and not one that is obscure or irrelevant. As Equal Opportunities Commissioner Dr Judy McGregor argues, the bill does not threaten privacy. “What the bill is suggesting is that you and I have the right to ask our employer whether we are being paid equally. The bill does not propose that I can ask about someone else’s pay and be told what everyone else in an organisation is being paid if it is not relevant to my pay.” It merely requires that data is collected by the organization and that if a woman asks if they are being paid equally, it allows an independent investigator to be appointed. This is not information that can be requested for legal cases under current laws. This is crucial to addressing the issue that New Zealand has with glass ceilings for women in the workplace, and an issue that the ideologically right in Government are doing little to address - whether it be Bennett's sustained attacks on solo mothers, Key's absolute nonchalance regarding women, or Ansell's claim that ACT was a party for mustaches that has led to Brash's public declaration that he will try to appeal to more women. One thing is for certain here: if you are a woman and you care about your salary, it is clear which side of this Bill your bread is buttered.


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