Story: Women’s labour organisations

Page 4. Equal pay and pay equity

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Women in the labour market

The number of women in the labour market rose from approximately 169,000 to 382,000 between 1945 and 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, the most a man could earn in the insurance industry was £727 per year; 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 first 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 and women’s hourly rates had shrunk to 22% by 1985.

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

It 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 private-sector equal pay. The Federation of Labour (the umbrella group for private-sector unions) was not interested in equal pay, and CEPO provided leadership and co-ordination 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 set up. By the time the private sector Equal Pay Act was passed in 1972, the NCW had passed nearly 20 such resolutions. It would go on to pass similar resolutions in support of pay equity. In 2009 equal pay was the only resolution passed at the NCW’s first conference that had not been achieved.


1967 advisory council

Equal pay activists also instigated the setting up 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 private-sector equal pay. It recommended that the government set up an independent commission of inquiry, whose terms of reference should be 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 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 unions pay their own women workers equally, and held vigils to protest at delays in delivering equal pay.

Pay equity

Pay equity – women and men getting the same or a similar wage for doing a comparable job – was fought for in the 1980s. The skill a job required, the responsibility it carried, the effort demanded and the conditions of work all had to be assessed when comparing jobs. Because it allowed different jobs to be compared, pay equity had the potential to resolve the historic undervaluing of work typically done by women. The Employment Equity Act was passed in 1990, but repealed within months after a change of government.

Coalition for Equal Value, Equal Pay, 1986

The Coalition for Equal Value, Equal Pay (CEVEP) was set up by women’s groups and unions in 1986. The groups included those which had fought for working women’s rights in earlier decades – the FUW, BPW, NCW and YWCA. Prominent among the unions were the Clerical Workers’ Association (which funded a full-time pay-equity organiser), the Distribution Workers’ Union, and the Nurses’ Association.

CEVEP, like CEPO before it, was an effective coalition, with both women’s groups and unions contributing to its campaigns. CEVEP’s Dunedin group, for example, included people from the local clerical workers’, post office and distribution unions, the Oamaru Woollen Workers’ Union, YWCA, BPW and the Disabled Persons’ Assembly.

CEVEP went into recess in 1994.

  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 and pay equity', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 November 2022)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011