Anyone who thinks New Zealand has achieved gender equality might want to take a closer look at the income gap. On International Women’s Day, Susan St John examines the 1950s family model we’re still basing our unfair policies on. 

International Women’s Day offers an opportunity to reflect on the feminisation of poverty: how international and domestic inequality is increasing, and security is decreasing. Men in charge has not worked out well. But nor has the 1970s wave of feminism that emphasised that women should compete in a male world of work. The ‘women can do anything’ world of possibility has become the fractured world of the 21st Century when ‘women are expected to do everything’. 

Many women have succeeded in the male paradigm but the price they have paid is high. Being too busy and stressed trying to hold it all together makes it harder for them to have empathy for the growing band of their less fortunate sisters and their children. Yet theirs are the voices that are desperately needed to ensure the political resolve to achieve a sustainable and fairer future.

Aotearoa New Zealand began to travel down a path of extreme neoliberalism in the early 1990s. Thirty years on the fruits are seen everywhere: the extraordinary wealth divide, the stratospheric housing market, the rampant poverty, homelessness, enduring domestic violence, suicides and despair made worse by Covid along with the effects of global heating and loss of trust in government. The current alienation felt by many who have little income security and face further fallout from the current pandemic is a festering sore. Aotearoa no longer feels like the safe place it used to be except for the insulated wealthy.

For many low-income women, the future looks bleak even if the economy bounces back strongly. The Covid years have impacted not just on their income but on their family balance sheets. Secure housing is beyond the reach of many, and an increasing group of older women are approaching retirement at the mercy of the unaffordable insecure rental sector. A gender breakdown by income of KiwiSaver balances is likely to also show that low-income women have seen their KiwiSaver as expendable in tough times. It is already difficult if not impossible for women who take time out to care for children and older relatives to make up for the critical years when they were not contributing. The loss of savings and provision for the future are hard to restore.

The political and social reformation required is a daunting task indeed, but for today, let’s concentrate on what is doable and what could begin to make a difference. It involves an understanding and refusal to tolerate the patriarchal roots of many of our sacred cows and a willingness to speak out.

The post-war social model comprised the man in a full-time secure job with the mother of his children at home full-time looking after the domestic issues, giving him the stability of a secure home life so that he could continue to work uninterrupted until 65, at which point they both enjoy the golden years of retirement in their mortgage-free home or a retirement village.

Social policy was based on this norm, which bears no resemblance to 21st Century family structures yet its influences are still everywhere. Women could start by taking a hard look at our social policies, which don’t work well for many women, nor for an increasing number of men.

Even social policies that we are most proud of are based on the primacy of conventional full-time male paid work and the invisibility of the value of the unpaid female contribution. For example, while ACC is a comprehensive world-leading scheme for all New Zealanders who have an accident, women get 37 percent of the total ACC expenditure and much less than men of the earnings-related part. A sports injury on the rugby field to a high-income male can see him with 80 percent of his previous earnings, up to $2200 a week, while an equally serious injury to a woman that means she cannot do her unpaid caregiving work might get a minimal benefit or no income compensation at all if her husband earns too much.  

Largely categorised as part of a natural process, most debilitating injuries experienced by many women doing the most difficult and dangerous work of pregnancy and birth on behalf of humanity are not currently covered under ACC. While men can drink and drive and injure themselves and others and be fully covered under ACC, women who can’t afford to pay for the treatment they require after childbirth, or when the damage appears in later life, can suffer years of pain and incapacity. The best that can be mustered so far is a bill before the house that will see better coverage but only for a selected list of injuries and for only those births that occur after October this year. Women need to raise their voices to demand more than this slow and timid correction.

Another hangover from the post-war morality is that low-income women are effectively taxed for having sex. Why else would a couple on a benefit get less than two people who share accommodation? A disabled woman or sole parent on a benefit who flats with another person can have the dignity of her independent income stripped away if there is a whiff of a possible ‘relationship’. Her upkeep and that of her children is assumed to be met by the flatmate. Likewise, if she is deemed to be partnered, an increase in her partner’s income may trigger a demand for Working for Families overpayments. New figures show that 80 percent of WFF overpayment debt to IRD is owed by women.  

While NZ Super is the best example we have of a social policy that works in the 21st Century because it treats men and women the same regardless of attachment to the paid workforce, KiwiSaver has a considerable gender bias. Traditional male patterns of employment are rewarded, with the maximum gain from member tax credits and employer subsidy for those in paid work for 40 years. We don’t yet have the NZ figures for balances by gender at age 65, but the experience in Australia   shows that median balances for women approaching retirement are 33 percent of the median amount men have in their superannuation accounts.

Another implicit gender bias of the 1950s family model is that education for well-paid men is more important. Student loans accrued by females who may have to retrain after bringing up a family are repaid with much greater difficulty. Well-paid full-time work may be much more difficult to sustain. Women, as secondary earners in couples or sole parents face crippling tax loads often for their entire lives. For them, extra earnings can be of little use in getting out of poverty as an extra dollar earned is not only taxed but may see a 27 cent loss of Working for Families support if household income is over the low threshold of $42,700, and if she earns over $20,000, she pays an extra 12 cents in student loan repayment. Women must lobby for debt forgiveness, or at minimum, a raising of the thresholds for WFF and student loan repayment.

Why do sole parents, 90 percent of whom are women, suffer the worst rates of poverty? There are many more actions to be taken and battles to be won. Women have a long way to go before there is full gender equality on even a narrow range of measures.

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