Wake-up call on women’s rights

Sunday was Suffrage Day, a day on which we are urged to celebrate the struggle for Votes for Women. Determined to celebrate, I attended several suffrage events, but ended up somewhat sobered by the work we still need to do to achieve gender equity in the 21st Century.

The gender pay gap is 12 percent on average, but it ranges from 3 percent to 30 percent across the public sector.

At one event in Wellington, Minister of Women’s Affairs Pansy Wong admitted that Labour’s Sue Moroney and I had given her a “work out” on pay equity in the House last week, but she remains supremely confident that her strategies for avoiding real change to gender pay equity are sufficient.

These strategies are to encourage women into male-dominated trades, to encourage flexible working hours, to lobby for more women on boards, and to try to reduce domestic violence via on the spot safety orders. Many of these ideas have merit but will not reduce the gender pay gap.

Even more sobering was the speech by Human Rights Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Judy McGregor, who is working on the Human Rights Participation Survey about the status of women in key leadership roles, based on census data.

The survey hasn’t been completed yet, but indications are that women’s participation in leadership roles has plateaued and is slipping backwards. Numbers of women in key roles such as editors of major newspapers, heads of DHBs, national secretaries of unions, and CEOs in the public service are all trending downwards. University professors are the only field that is still improving.

What’s happening to these participation rates? Why are we losing ground? What should we do about this?

I am keen to engage in a dialogue with all women on this wake up call. Kate Sheppard would expect no less!

17 thoughts on “Wake-up call on women’s rights

  1. Hi Catherine – readers may be interested in a new report Women for MMP released for Suffrage day on the representation of women under MMP since 1996 – have a look here: http://www.campaignformmp.org.nz/node/44. It discussed both the better representation and specific policy wins for women since MMP was introduced.

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  2. Cost equity would be even more remarkable Cath!
    Am going to watch ‘Thelma and Louise’ three times
    (liar has already done so)

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  3. Make-up only covers up the ugly, it does not make it go away; if you want to address disparate wages you cannot just say that it should be or pass legislation to order such, you must address the underlying issues.

    The disparity across gender lines is a product of job choice and of perception. If you want to decrease the inequity then you need to either address the choice of jobs, address the pay for female-dominated professions, or address the perceptions.

    In regards to addressing the perceptions, you need to convince employers that having a uterus, or not having a penis, does not make you more risky than a comparable male and that it does not make you less productive either. The fact of the matter is that many perceptions, true or not, ultimately indicate females as less valuable employees in a number of the higher-paying professions. You need to show that females are not more emotionally variable, that they are as productive as a comparable male, and that they are no more likely to have or look after a child than a male.

    Like it or not, so long as this is a society where we are not all fertile hermaphrodites or where reproduction is not made external to the human, females will be more likely to get pregnant and thus more likely to have to take pregnancy leave. So long as this is a society where females tend to be the carers of children, it will be the female whom is more likely to sacrifice her career for partner or child. Both of these result in far greater risk to employers and thus less justification for higher pay. Add to that that a number would have taken time off work for such and you have a skill gap as well as a risk gap, even if the jobs sought, and the terms of those jobs, were always the same as for male counterparts.

    Eliminate the perception of gender distinction and you will be a lot closer. Eliminate the perception of reproductive distinction and you will be even closer still. Short of that, you will never achieve your goal; as desirable as it may be.

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  4. Much though I hate to admit it, you make some good points, Sapient! (When I was younger, I got sick and tired of explaining that I had neither the intention nor the opportunity to have more children, but as I was in my mid-twenties, I understood).
    The other point I want to make is linguistic. In the 1980s, I campaigned in every workplace and social setting, against men calling women over 18 “girls”. I might as well not have bothered.
    It’s deja vu all over again. Women call themselves ‘girls’ and ‘ladies’, let alone men (and back in the 1980s, women had too much self-respect to be girls. Not now, from what I hear!
    On Nat Rad this morning, I heard an item about Fashion Week – a designer had got her models ‘off the street’, so as to show her clothes on women size 10-14… Good as far as it goes, but both she and the reporter referred throughout to the 45 models as girls. The reporter at one point spoke about “herding girls”. I like to think that if she and the designer (a “lady” I presume, she sounded 40+) had been calling the models women, she’d have taken a step back, and seen the revolting mental image inherent in the verb she chose, and wouldn’t have said “herding” – what popped into my mind was a picture of a lot of cows (huge dangling udders) being propelled where they didn’t necessarily have enough brain to know if they wanted to go.
    When any woman calls herself a girl, be it my 27 year old niece, or a 30 something office worker, I always look at the blouse, and think yeah, cup size bigger than IQ… It’s irresistible.
    What you call something or someone matters!
    Girl, N-word, bludger… None of those words promotes equality, hey?
    Vicky

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  5. Vicky,

    I can certainly see where you are coming from with the use of the word ‘girl’. The thing is, I think, that the culture at present is obsessed with youth far more than maturity. If you call a twenty-something a woman or a lady (even more negative implications there) you risk offending her by implying that she is old, even if she is within the appropriate range to call her such. Calling someone a girl may degrade the maturity side of things but it enhances the, apparently more important, youth side of things.

    I try to use the term ‘female’ to avoid the aforementioned nuisances. The down-side of that being that it is both more noticeable than girl/woman/lady and it has the effect of making it seem as if I am distancing the sexes. Using sex-neutral and gender-neutral terms such as ‘person’ are even more derogatory than the terms one is trying to escape. be thankful ours is not a language which makes a large use of gendered forms.

    Personally, I think the obsession with youth is silly and damaging. The obsession is perpetuated, though, because it makes lots of money and because it has been assimilated in to what people want in themselves and in others. It is similar to circumcision, vulva without visible labia minora, and big boobs; it has become a self-perpetuating meme which does a substantial amount of damage. All of the aforementioned are, of course, doubly damaging in that they reduce both sexes, but particularly females, into physical forms (that in no way reflects function) that must be made to conform with some ideal just to have value.

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  6. You’re right Sapient, but calling women “girls” infantilises them… It makes me very cross that 27 year olds like my niece want to be babied! (Sadly, she’s a dumb blonde, and even sadder, she’s proud of it!)
    I am bilingual, Italian and English, and as you know, Italian is all about grammatical gender – it drives me completely crazy!
    So many currently young people don’t even realise that youth is, to paraphrase Elaine Morgan, a thing that will not endure, or that age is not a moral failing!
    As for the term female, my ancient grandmother is spinning so rapidly in her grave (somewhere in Devonport I believe) that she’s burrowing to wherever! I never knew her, but according to my mother, she would go rabid if the word ‘female’ was used to designate humans, as female is a word used only for livestock! (No doubt that was true in 18__ whatever!)
    I admit that I refer to women who have annoyed me (by messing up at a call centre for instance) as girls, the irony being that if my comment is passed on to them, they don’t even know that ‘girl’ is an insult by me…
    I almost feel like starting a new group – Women for Linguistic Equality!
    Vicky

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  7. Vicky. I understand entirely, but as one of those fat middle aged males whatever I call a women these days seems to be insulting to somebody. Ladies, which I prefer, is considered old fashioned.

    I actually think some gender pay gap is inevitable. My wife’s choice was to stay home with the kids, when they were young, which is of course going to affect her lifetime earnings.

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  8. Vicky, I think you might be on loosing ground here.
    The term Men is used less and less these days, Gentleman even less. It’s all about the Boys these days.
    So I’m figuring Girls is in ascendance, either that or (gasp) Cougar!

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  9. “it will be the female whom is more likely to sacrifice her career for partner or child.”

    that’s true Sapient but a good part of the reason for this as it does not make sense for the father to give up his career when he’s generally paid a lot more than the mother for a comparable role. the pay inequity between males and females feeds a vicious cycle in that sense.

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  10. I agree with the reasons for pay disparity and the steps needed to address it in Sapient’s first comment. You cannot assume from the statistics on income that women are being paid less than men for doing the same or equivalent work. You would have to look at individual examples to see whether this was the case or whether factors such as choice of a traditional lower-paid female occupation or broken employment due to child care are responsible. Likewise you cannot assume from the statistics on participation in higher-paid occupations that women are being discriminated against in appointments (which would include the expectation, justified or not, that women will take leave or resign to raise a family). You would have to look at individual examples again to see whether this was the case – rather hard to prove – or whether the appointment was genuinely on merit.

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  11. Nommopilot,

    Indeed, I wanted to touch on it in more depth but had to catch a bus. Vicious circles tend to be the case with most cultural phenomena. I think, though, that the pay disparity is a very small part of it compared to the cultural expectations forced on both sexes.

    An interesting thing that I have observed is that a substantial proportion of, though certainly not all, females do expect that they will stop work to raise a family or work only to supplement the income of the male. The result of this being that higher wages are not demanded so strongly and thus that traditionally female-dominated areas see a lower wage despite, in many cases, rather undesirable work circumstances. My present partner-of-sorts, for example, cares for the impaired and gets paid and treated like shit but does so because she enjoys the caring role. She intends to train to become a teachers aid so she can continue to be paid and treated like shit because she wants to work with kids.

    ~*~*~*~*~*~*~

    Vicky,

    I think that ‘individual’ is more preferable still to ‘female’ in cases where sex is not important. The problem being that it sticks out even more than ‘female’, has other negative connotations, and some people see it as denying their sexuality or gender. In all honesty, though, when I am not being mindful of my language I tend to use ‘chic’ for all females.

    I think that, regardless of the words used, there are going to be negative connotations that one sector of society will dislike. This being enhanced by the counter-logical, youth-obsessed, culture in which we live.

    It makes me very cross that 27 year olds like my niece want to be babied! (Sadly, she’s a dumb blonde, and even sadder, she’s proud of it!)

    Welcome to my dilemma. As male of almost 22-years, this is a problem I face frequently; it is so hard to find an acceptable mate. Even at university, even at post-graduate level, the females are either infantile, semi-intelligent but ideological nuts, or smart and coupled. lol.

    If you think that you can reverse billions of dollars of cultural engineering and alter the self-perpetuated culture of youth then go ahead, I would be thankful if you could. I, though, have a hard enough time getting people to ask “Why?”.

    I admit that I refer to women who have annoyed me (by messing up at a call centre for instance) as girls, the irony being that if my comment is passed on to them, they don’t even know that ‘girl’ is an insult by me…

    Going off of my direct and indirect experience with call centres, and that is a fair amount, the phone staff are referred to as girls by themselves and by management. The males as well. I am not sure if there is a degree of cynicism in the statement coming from management regarding the maturity of the staff. Really, languages are dynamic; I think that the connotations of immaturity will disappear soon enough and it will just become a generic catch-all to refer to females, just as very few people use ‘gay’ in it’s original sense.

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  12. You cannot assume from the statistics on income that women are being paid less than men for doing the same or equivalent work. You would have to look at individual examples to see whether this was the case or whether factors such as choice of a traditional lower-paid female occupation…

    Rod is right on both these issues, but this reality does not coincide with the Delahunty version of equality, despite the fact its been explained to her many times by many people; she just doesn’t get it.

    This lack of ability to actually understand the problem then handicaps her as she attempts to fight a battle that doesn’t actually exist.

    Does Catherine get paid differently than Kevin simply because she is a woman? I think not.

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  13. Sapient, you said “Welcome to my dilemma. As male of almost 22-years, this is a problem I face frequently; it is so hard to find an acceptable mate. Even at university, even at post-graduate level, the females are either infantile, semi-intelligent but ideological nuts, or smart and coupled. lol.”
    My son, 23 years old, had more or less exactly the same problem at Uni! (He was doing a B.Nurs., and although he was one of 8 guys in a class of 90+, and should have had plenty of choice, he found that all the intelligent, mentally mature women were coupled.) He jokes that like all nurses, he’s after a doctor, and now he’s working at Wellington Hospital, he meets many doctors socially, lovely young women who won’t date him, because they would be ‘cradle-robbing’ (they’re 4-8 years older than he is.)
    He is more adamant than I am, about calling a woman a woman, has in fact rebuked me for referring to a 19 year old female as a girl.. but because he’s a very young looking 23 (lucky guy looks 18!), no female he meets objects to being called a woman by him…
    Kerry, I understand your dilemma. In the 1980s, you would have been fine saying ‘woman’! I believe Sapient is right about it all being about the cultural preference for ‘yoof’. A very sad thing I’ve seen recently is Jane Fonda advertising skin cream that keeps her young! (On the up side Helen Mirren has made her opinion of the ceaseless desire for youth, plain!) Jane Fonda advertising eternal youth is just as sad as one of the stars from my mother’s youth (June Allyson I think) advertising incontinence pads for the elderly in the 90s.) Women in Hollywood age much faster than men do – as perception becomes reality – yet Michael Douglas still gets meaningful roles.
    That’s a feminist issue as well!
    Vicky

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  14. I’m actually having a tough time to remember the last time I referred to someone by a gender specific term other than a pronoun or a term which also specifies their relationship to another person (as in: mother, wife, grandfather, etc)
    I think one thing that could help improve gender equality would be to increase provisions for fathers who want to spend significant time caring for their children. There’s this assumption in so many different cultures that it’s only mothers who care about that kind of thing. My girlfriend isn’t even pregnant and I already worry that when we do have kids I won’t have enough time to spend with them!

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  15. Welcome to my dilemma. As male of almost 22-years, this is a problem I face frequently; it is so hard to find an acceptable mate. Even at university, even at post-graduate level, the females are either infantile, semi-intelligent but ideological nuts, or smart and coupled. lol.

    Even the infantile ones and the semi-intelligent ones are also coupled, and we are supposed to be going through a man drought. I would hate to think what things would be like if the gender balance was the other way around.

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  16. “but indications are that women’s participation in leadership roles has plateaued and is slipping backwards.”
    Could a factor in this be that in times of especially financialcrisis , and also more general “hard” time periods the employment environment in general gets nastier and harder. Because many people (especially amongst those who hold any sort of autority) still believe and act to enforce women’s greater social obligation imposed on them for domestic duties than men, for whatever reason, factors combine (lack of jobs and resources becoming unaffordable etc) to make it more difficult for women to make headway? Secondly what policies and opportunities do you think we can promote to alter this equaision for the better?

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