Story: Women’s labour organisations

Page 6. Women’s organisations, 1950s–2020s

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The increased participation of women in the workforce led to a broadening of the issues considered by labour organisations. Along with training or retraining for re-entry to the workforce, childcare and access to flexible or part-time hours of work became matters of concern in the mid-20th century. Later, parental leave and equal employment opportunities became important.

The experience of working women was diverse. Increasing numbers of Pākehā women became senior leaders – women were 52.5% of members of public sector boards in 2021, and 22.5% of members of private-sector boards in 2020. Others, including Māori and Pacific women, were more likely to be in poorly paid and sometimes insecure jobs.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit working women much harder than men. In the first year of the pandemic (March 2020 – March 2021) women were nearly 10 times more likely to have moved from standard employment to precarious or non-standard work (such as part-time or casual work) than men. Māori and Pacific women were disproportionately affected, as were young women workers aged between 15 and 24, who tended to dominate hospitality and retail work. Other ethnic minority women were also adversely affected.

For women’s labour organisations, the increasing variation in women’s work made representing or addressing the problems faced by all working women increasingly difficult. Many organisations changed or narrowed their focus to particular ethnic groups, occupations or issues. 

Organisations such as the National Council of Women continued to be active. In the 21st century, the NCW led non-government reporting on the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and continued to provide a meeting place for many women’s organisations. There were also new groups.

National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women, 1967

Members of the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women (NACEW) were initially representatives of women’s organisations and government officials. Over time its membership expanded to include representatives of unions, business and a wider range of government agencies.

Working within government and contributing to the policy-making process, the council considered a broad range of issues to do with women and employment, including the position of Māori and women from Pacific communities at work, choice and conditions of work, training, care of dependants, superannuation and parental leave.

To work or not to work

Working wives and mothers were a topic of heated debate in the 1950s. Some readers of the New Zealand Women’s Weekly strongly disapproved, writing letters about ‘this chirpy little sparrow who feels more secure in company’,1 motivated by greed for a new fridge or carpet, whose children soon realise whether ‘Mother works because she has to or because she likes to’.2 Despite opposition, the shift to working after marriage continued to gather momentum.

Women’s liberation movement, 1970 and 1980s

Women’s liberation movement groups demanded equal opportunities for working women. Their concerns included access to non-traditional and part-time work, the Working Women’s Charter, parental leave, retraining after time at home to care for children and the prevention of sexual harassment.

Childcare, necessary for working mothers, and itself a source of work for women, was the focus of activism. Christchurch Women’s Liberation surveyed the city’s childcare centres, finding lengthy waiting lists and very low wages; Auckland-based Women for Equality held a childcare conference to discuss problems in the sector; Palmerston North Women’s Liberation set up a childcare action group to lobby the council for more centres. Feminists strongly supported the creation of the Early Childhood Workers’ Union, and a number set up their own childcare centres.

Many of the women’s liberation groups were relatively short-lived, but their members often went on to be active in unions or other organisations.

Equal Employment Opportunities Trust, 1992

The Equal Employment Opportunities Trust was set up by the government in 1992 after it repealed the Employment Equity Act 1990. The trust was to address some of the issues raised by the pay equity campaign by promoting to employers the business benefits of equal employment opportunities (EEO). Its trustees were drawn from both the private and public sectors, and were predominantly women. Over time the Trust built up a large and diverse membership, including businesses, government entities, professional associations and interest groups.

The Trust developed EEO guidelines, worked with an EEO employers’ group to create versatile and successful workplaces, and funded surveys into diversity and work–life balance. A central element in the Trust’s work was the voluntary nature of employer involvement.

In 2022, the Trust, renamed Diversity Works, continued to promote equal employment opportunities. Its focus included people who faced discrimination because of disability, age, ethnicity, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, neurodiversity or religious belief.

Global Women

In the 2020s, the increasing number of women in or aspiring to governance and senior leadership roles could find support from or join organisations such as Global Women (GW). Set up in 2012, GW aimed to increase diversity in business leadership. It provided development opportunities for women, including leadership programmes and events, and information and advice to others who supported change. In 2022 it had more than 400 members, all of whom were or had been in senior leadership roles, and its partner organisations included some of New Zealand’s largest companies.

  1. New Zealand Women’s Weekly, 28 June 1956, p. 5. Back
  2. New Zealand Women’s Weekly, 5 July 1956, p 3. Back
How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Women’s labour organisations - Women’s organisations, 1950s–2020s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

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