Story: Women’s labour organisations

Page 4. Equal pay, mid-20th century

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Women in the labour market

The number of women in the labour market rose from approximately 169,000 in 1945 to 382,000 in 1971. Increasing numbers of women continued in, or returned to, paid employment after marriage, and more Māori women were in paid work.

A few occupations – shop and clerical work, food and clothing production, nursing and teaching – still provided most of the jobs done by women.

Women continued to be paid considerably less than men. The female minimum wage was 60% of the male minimum from 1945 and 65% from 1949. In the mid-1950s, a man could earn up to £727 per year in the insurance industry; the most a woman could earn was £450 (61.9%).

Equal pay

Equal pay – women and men being paid the same wage for doing the same job – was fought for in the public service in the 1950s, and then in the private sector in the 1960s and 1970s. These campaigns helped persuade the government to pass the Government Service Equal Pay Act 1960 and the private sector Equal Pay Act 1972. As a result, the gap between men’s and women’s hourly rates had shrunk to 20.8% by 1979.

Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity, 1957

Equal pay was fought for by a coalition of women and men, unions and women’s organisations. The National Council of Women (NCW), Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (BPW), Federation of University Women (FUW), Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Public Service Association formed the Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity (CEPO) in 1957. CEPO’s aims were ‘to bring about as soon as possible the full implementation of the principles of equal pay for equal work (or the rate for the job) and equal opportunity’.1

CEPO campaigned effectively for equal pay within the government and private sectors from 1957 to 1960 and 1966 to 1972 respectively. CEPO was revived in the 1980s to fight for pay equity.

The council’s activities were particularly critical to the fight for equal pay in the private sector. The Federation of Labour (the umbrella group for private-sector unions) was not interested in equal pay, and CEPO provided leadership and coordination of the union and women’s groups fighting for equity.

Ever hopeful

Many existing women’s organisations pushed for equal pay, notably the NCW. It passed its first resolution supporting equal pay in 1896, the year it was founded. By the time the private sector Equal Pay Act became law in 1972, the NCW had passed nearly 20 such resolutions. It would go on to pass similar resolutions in support of pay equity. In 2022, equal pay was the only goal adopted at the NCW’s first conference that had not been achieved.

National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women (NACEW)

Equal pay activists also instigated the creation of the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women (NACEW), a government organisation supported by the Department of Labour. NACEW became part of the policy-making process.

The council was integral to the fight for equal pay in the private sector. It recommended that the government set up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate how best to give effect to equal pay – rather than whether or not to introduce it.

Women’s liberation movement groups, 1970s

Equal pay was one of the first demands made by the women’s liberation movement groups which were set up from 1970. Groups such as the Wellington and Auckland Women’s Liberation Fronts, and the Women’s Movement for Freedom, handed out leaflets at factory gates setting out the wage gap, demanded that unions paid their own women workers equally, and held vigils to protest against delays in delivering equal pay.

  1. Constitution of the Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity, p. 1. Back
How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Women’s labour organisations - Equal pay, mid-20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 20 Dec 2022