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Story: Gender inequalities

Marriage, family and parenting, sexuality, employment, education, arts and culture, religion, sport and dress have all been areas of discrimination against women. While gender inequalities have mostly limited women’s lives and roles, some men have also been concerned about discrimination.

Story by Anne Else
Main image: Otago Polytechnic graduates, 2010

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

Gender inequalities generally affect women more often than men. They have led to controversy and activism since the 19th century.

Women’s place

Inequality has resulted from women’s limited role in society. Until the 1960s women were expected mostly to be wives, mothers and homemakers. Men were expected to support their wives and children financially, and to represent them in public affairs.

Feminists fought for women’s rights – mostly in the late 19th century and the 1970s and 1980s. However, some discrimination continued in the early 2000s.

Marriage and family

In the mid-19th century a married couple was legally one unit, controlled by the husband. A wife’s money and property belonged to her husband – but she had no right to any of his property or earnings. It was difficult for women to divorce their husbands, even if the marriage was violent. Rape in marriage was not a crime until 1985.


Women were not allowed to vote until 1893, and could not stand for Parliament until 1919. Before the 1980s there were very few women MPs. The first women prime ministers were Jenny Shipley (1997–99) and Helen Clark (1999–2008).

Paid work

In the 19th century women were excluded from many occupations. Their wages were much lower than men’s – often about half. Almost all women left paid work when they got married. From the 20th century more women had jobs – but they could still be paid less than men, until 1960 in the public sector and 1972 in the private sector. In the 2000s women still often worked in low-paid occupations, and most high positions were still held by men.


In the 19th century many parents thought it was a waste of time to educate their daughters. In the 20th century girls often had to study domestic science (cooking, sewing and housework), rather than more academic subjects. Women attended university from when it first opened, but areas such as medicine and law were difficult to get into.

Arts and culture

Women artists, actors and writers sometimes struggled to get funding, exhibition space, media attention and publication. Feminists in the 1970s and 1980s set up women’s galleries, bookshops and theatre groups.


In the 19th century it was considered unwomanly to play sport. Women’s involvement in sport increased over the 20th century, but women’s sport often received less funding and less media attention than men’s sport.


Until the later 20th century women could not become ministers or priests in most churches. In the 2000s Catholic priests were still all male.

How to cite this page:

Anne Else, 'Gender inequalities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 June 2017)

Story by Anne Else, published 5 May 2011