Gender pay gaps are still alive and well in NZ to the tune of nearly $8b a year despite decades of campaigning for what should be a basic right

Opinion: 1972 was a poor vintage in Bordeaux. It was cold and wet at the wrong times so the grapes didn’t fully develop. The winemakers still tried to flog their wines at eye-watering prices. They didn’t sell, and Bordeaux wines took a reputation hit.

Meanwhile, more positive things were happening across the other side of the world.

I was born in September and the Equal Pay Act was passed a month later.

Turning 50 is a real milestone. ‘Halfway to a century’ one birthday card reads. Others have glitter and champagne corks popping.

But the birthday cards for the Equal Pay Act should be a bit more lacklustre.

The aim of the Act was to remove and prevent pay discrimination based on gender. Before it there could be and were women’s and men’s pay rates for the same job. Men’s higher wages were justified because they were the breadwinners; women’s work was discretionary.

The Act sets out steps employers should take to determine equal pay, how to make claims and even how to manage pay increases for female workers.

Its passing was a major step forward for gender equality. Women’s work – by law – should be as equally valued as that of their male colleagues.

Yet research released this month by the Mind the Gap campaign shows gender pay gaps are alive and well to the tune of nearly $8 billion a year. That’s how much the gender pay gap costs New Zealand women; that’s how much is missing from their pay packages every year.

Gender is only one cause of pay discrimination. When you add in the pay gaps experienced by Māori and Pacific workers that can’t be explained by their job type, industry, or level of education, it’s an $18b hole each year.

While thanks to the Equal Pay Act we don’t see job ads blatantly offering different pay rates for men and women, the Act has clearly not removed and prevented pay discrimination as it set out to.

Pay discrimination is much more subtle now. Pay gaps emerge because few women or Māori or Pacific workers are promoted into high-paying leadership roles and some types of jobs that women usually do are under-valued (such as caring roles). We still penalise workers for having time out to care for children or their elderly parents.

Despite decades of campaigning for what seems like a basic right, that gets to what I thought was a core New Zealand value – fair play – we seem stuck in the 70s.

We need a seismic shift forward. A full hip replacement for the Equal Pay Act. Or perhaps a discrimination by-pass.

At least half of the cause, and therefore at least half of the solution, to pay gaps lies in the behaviours of organisations. This is where the focus needs to be.

New Zealand research shows pay disparities within firms account for 50 percent of the gender pay gap.

UK research released last year found ethnic wage gaps can mostly be attributed to salary differences between co-workers.

That is why the Mind the Gap campaign I co-founded is calling for legislation that requires all medium to large organisations to publicly report their gender and ethnic pay gaps.

Once an organisation has to report its gaps, international experience shows most will take action to reduce them.

While a Pay Transparency Act will not solve all the discrimination in our workplaces, like the Equal Pay Act five decades ago, it will be a major step forward.

That will be something to celebrate with cake and champers (but not, it seems, 50-year-old Bordeaux).

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