Story: Gender inequalities

Page 4. Paid employment

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The 19th century

Paid employment was the exception rather than the rule for New Zealand women in the 19th century. In 1874 a fifth of women over 15 had paid jobs, and in 1891 still less than a quarter did. Domestic service, tailoring, shop work and, as the century wore on, factories absorbed most employed women.

Women were excluded from many occupations. Banks, businesses, post and telegraph offices, teaching and nursing, and the professions and trades (apart from tailoring) were male-only or male-dominated. In the later 19th and early 20th centuries, women began working in many of these areas. Wages paid to women were substantially lower than – often about half of – those of men doing the same or similar work, and they were generally kept in low-level positions.

Women almost invariably left paid work when they married. Many were probably happy to do so – running a household and raising children was a demanding job – but those who wished to continue in employment mostly could not do so.

Tax assumption

From 1914 to 1972 married women were reminded that their paid work was officially secondary every time they opened their pay packet. They were taxed at the higher secondary rate, and eligible for none of the concessions available to married men.

The 20th century

By the Second World War 60% of women aged 15–24 had paid jobs, and almost all women were in employment before marrying. After the war, it gradually became more acceptable for married women to have a job, especially as the need for teachers, nurses and clerical staff grew with the baby boom and the expanding welfare state.

By 1966 women made up 27% of the paid workforce, and 41% of employed women were married. Married or single, women still did not get the same pay or opportunities as men; it was believed they did not have the same skills or responsibilities.

Over time, more and more mothers were also in paid employment. However, the state did not invest in childcare or even to count how many pre-schoolers had mothers with paid jobs.

Job equals neglect

Working mothers continued to be disapproved of in the 1970s. Prime Minister Rob Muldoon told a Young Nationals meeting, ‘Two families may live side by side and be identical in every way, except that in one case the mother goes to work, and in the other case she doesn’t. The effect on the children in these two families is in the one case relative affluence, as against poverty, and in the other case adequate care as against neglect.’1

Although legislation required the introduction of equal pay for equal work in the public service (1960) and the private sector (1972), women’s earnings and careers were often still treated as secondary to men’s, and to domestic responsibilities. Very few women had the same opportunities as men. Many occupations and most senior positions remained male preserves long after formal barriers had been removed.

By 2014 paid employment was the norm for women with children. 58% of sole mothers and 70% of partnered mothers were in paid employment (compared to 83% of women without dependent children). 

Paid work in the 21st century

In the early 21st century women were not only permitted but expected to have paid jobs, and to support themselves and their children if they needed to. They also continued to do most of the unpaid work.

Many occupations were still done mainly by men or by women, and those done by women were paid substantially less. The gender pay gap (the difference in the median hourly earnings of women and men in full-time and part-time paid work) reduced between 1998 and 2012 from 16.3% to 9.1%, but rose to 12% in 2016. Only 20% of the gender pay gap could be explained by differences in education or training between women and men or the occupations and industries in which they work. The Ministry for Women has argued that the rest of the difference is due to unexplained causes such as behavior, attitudes and biases. They argue that the gap can only be reduced by collective action from a range of participants including workers, employers, careers advisors, business leaders and employer groups, and the government.

Many more women than men managed the needs of family by spending some years working part-time and taking lower-level positions. Fourteen weeks of paid pre-natal and post-natal parental leave was introduced in 2002, and this was extended to 18 weeks in 2016. On 30 November 2017, the Parental Leave and Employment Protection Amendment Bill passed its third reading in Parliament. It legislates for 22 weeks of paid parental leave from 1 July 2018 and 26 weeks from 1 July 2020.  It was the first legislation passed by the Labour-led coalition government which took office in October 2017. An earlier version of this legislation, introduced by Labour MP, Sue Moroney, received majority support in parliament in 2016, but vetoed on financial grounds by the previous National-led government.

In the early 21st century, pre-school childcare for three- and four-year-olds was free for 20 hours a week, but was available only in six-hour blocks, and school hours did not match the hours of full-time jobs. There was no legal entitlement to family leave to care for sick children or for ill, disabled or elderly relatives.

  1. Quoted in Christine Gillespie, 'The road ahead for the women's movement: out of the womb and into the world.' In Women in New Zealand society, edited by Beryl Hughes and Phillida Bunkle. Auckland; Boston: G. Allen & Unwin, 1980, p. 108. Back
How to cite this page:

Anne Else, 'Gender inequalities - Paid employment', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 March 2018)

Story by Anne Else, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jul 2017