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

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

Women’s place

Māori women had a say in the affairs of their iwi or hapū and could inherit land. Women of chiefly families were seen as tapu (sacred or restricted) and were needed to perform whakanoa ceremonies that removed tapu. They performed the karanga – the first cry of welcome – when visitors came to a marae. European settlers often assumed that Māori women were not powerful and negotiated only with men. Colonisation meant that Māori women’s traditional power was undermined.

In the mid to late 19th century, European settlers brought with them ideas about gender differences and women’s place that shaped laws, property rights, education and employment. Inequality between women and men arose out of limitations in women’s legal rights as well as attitudes and practices relating to their role in families, politics and the economy. Despite challenges to these restrictions from the late 19th century, 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 – most strongly in the late 19th century and the 1970s and 1980s. However, some discrimination continued in the 21st century.

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 – and 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). Jacinda Ardern became New Zealand’s 40th prime minister in October 2017. At 37 years old, she became the youngest female head of government in the world. In 2022, 60 of the 120 MPs were women, the highest number and proportion ever.

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 when they were doing the same jobs, until 1960 in the public sector and 1972 in the private sector. In the 21st century women still often worked in low-paid occupations, and most highly paid positions were 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) at school, rather than more academic subjects. Women attended universities from when these first opened, but it was often difficult for them to study in fields such as medicine and law.

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 many people thought that it was unwomanly to play sport. Women’s involvement in sport increased over the 20th century, but women’s sport usually 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 early 21st century only men could become Catholic priests.

How to cite this page:

Anne Else, 'Gender inequalities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Anne Else, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 20 June 2018