Before the Second World War, paid employment for girls and women was limited by age and occupation. Paid work was common before marriage but unusual afterwards. In the 19th century, virtually all employed women undertook domestic service, shop work, sewing, nursing or teaching. In the 20th century, increasing numbers of women worked in light manufacturing or as clerks or bookkeepers. Whatever their occupation, women were paid less than men.
Women workers were not strongly unionised. Domestic workers (the largest single female occupational group until the 1930s) were isolated in their employers’ homes, worked long hours, and in many cases had to ask permission to leave the house. It was impossible for them to form or join a trade union.
Shop and clerical workers’ unions included both men and women. Women’s short working lives limited their involvement in union activities. Many male unionists were unsympathetic to demands for equal pay and opportunities for promotion for women.
In other female-dominant occupations, women-only unions or associations were formed.
The Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union, established in 1889, was the first women’s union to be formed. Public concern about sweating in the clothing trade – working long hours in poor conditions for little money – prompted Dunedin labour leaders and prominent citizens (all men) to form a committee to negotiate with employers. When the employers refused to do so, the committee formed what became the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union. At first the union was run by men, but by 1891 its secretary was Harriet Morison, and there were 13 other women on its executive.
Active socially as well as industrially, the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union held picnics attended by hundreds. These events were also fundraisers, used to support the union’s wide-ranging interests. When rain reduced the attendance at two picnics in 1895, the union got into financial difficulty. Secretary Harriet Morison organised a carnival to recoup the shortfall, but failed to keep track of funds. Accused of embezzling money, Morison resigned.
Its concerns included working conditions and wages, but also organising other women workers, promoting training and supporting favourable legislation. The union provided money and an organiser’s time to fledgling Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch tailoresses’ unions.
In the 1940s the tailoresses’ unions were absorbed into mixed-gender clothing workers’ unions; despite women’s numerical dominance, men would run these unions for more than 20 years.
Persistently treated as inferior to male teachers in terms of pay, promotion and status, women teachers began to organise on a regional basis in 1901. In 1914 the New Zealand Women Teachers’ Association was formed. The association pushed for equal pay, the promotion of women, and the inclusion of women in the inspectorate. The association went into recess in 1964, after equal pay for teachers was won.
The New Zealand Nurses Association was founded in 1909 with assistance from doctors and the Department of Health. The association opposed strikes and industrial action, arguing that nursing was a vocation, not a job. It had considerable influence on the government, but until the 1950s was concerned with nurses’ status rather than working conditions and wages.
From the 19th century, many non-union women’s organisations were concerned with employment. Issues of concern included:
Some issues attracted widespread public support, notably the prevention of sweating. Others, like equal pay, were a standard demand of women’s groups (and women’s unions), but were not widely supported outside them.
The first group concerned with women and employment was the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association), set up in 1878. YWCA members waited on the wharf to meet young working-class women as they arrived in New Zealand to work as domestic servants or in factories. The association provided leisure activities, Christian teaching and accommodation.
Working women formed the Linda Rebekah Lodge in 1895 to insure themselves against times of trouble and hardship – sickness, widowhood and poverty in old age. The Lodge, whose members included domestic servants and shop workers, was part of the Independent Order of Oddfellows (IOOF). Membership (which meant payment of dues) guaranteed a sickness benefit, assistance for orphans, widows and the elderly, and help with funeral expenses.
In the 1910s and 1920s local YWCAs became central meeting places for young working women. The Auckland branch, for example, ran lunch and thrift clubs for working girls. In the inter-war period the YWCA (and some unions) began organising working women’s sport on a very large scale.
The late 19th century saw a burst of organising. Many of those setting up groups were suffragists. In towns around New Zealand, societies for the protection of women and children and women’s political leagues were formed. Groups like these included employment issues among their demands.
Some, like the Auckland Women’s Liberal League (formed in 1895), were linked with, or later absorbed by, a political party. In the 1890s it was the Liberal Party that attracted women concerned with employment issues; in the early 20th century it was the Labour Party.
Emily Gibson, a member of the Auckland Women’s Political League, described women’s methods when fighting for wages for apprentices as ‘pestering Mr Seddon and all his satellites on the subject, in season and out of season, and worrying the life out of MPs’. Having given women the vote ‘it was therefore in [Seddon’s] interest to do all in his power to keep them on his side of the fence, and well he knew it.’1
The National Council of Women (NCW), set up in 1896, was an umbrella organisation to which all New Zealand women’s groups could affiliate. At its annual conferences, work-related issues such as equal pay and equality for women teachers were regular topics of debate and resolutions. Its very broad base of member organisations meant the NCW was sometimes slow to act or react, but gave its decisions weight with the government.
The New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (BPW), set up by the YWCA in the 1930s, was concerned with women’s employment from the beginning. From the 1940s, the BPW became particularly concerned with equal pay, campaigning alongside unions and other women’s organisations.
From the 1920s and into the depression of the 1930s unemployment grew, among both men and women. In the 1920s unemployed women received no government assistance. Although women were required to pay unemployment tax from 1931, they were not entitled to unemployment benefits and received almost no government support.
Because few women joined unions or associations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, unemployed women workers depended on other organisations to represent them. Women’s organisations, including the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association), the National Council of Women (NCW), the Girls Friendly Society, and the Society for the Protection of Women and Children (SPWC), all protested to the government about the treatment of unemployed women, but to little effect.
In 1930 and 1931 mayoresses’ relief committees were formed in cities and many large towns. In 1931 and 1932 the mayoresses’ committees were replaced by women’s unemployment relief committees. Both were government-instigated and had a similar membership of YWCA, NCW and the SPWC representatives.
Political activist Miriam Soljak helped set up the Auckland women’s section of the Unemployed Workers’ Movement. ‘A workless woman’, she wrote, ‘cannot sleep out in parks; she must preserve a tidy appearance or lose respect; for her there is no “doss-house” or free counter lunch, few friends to “shout” a meal, and the bread of charity tastes exceedingly bitter when one is unaccustomed to the taste.’1
The mayoresses’ committees and the women’s unemployment relief committees ran employment bureaus and recreation and training centres focused on domestic work. They also provided unemployed women with small allowances.
The sometimes different interests of the often middle-class women in the committees and those who were unemployed showed up strongly in relation to domestic service. The committee women saw unemployment as an opportunity to resolve the decades-old servant shortage. Among working women dislike for domestic service – usually poorly paid and isolated – was entrenched; factory or office work had long been preferred.
Left-wing women, many of them members of the Labour or Communist parties, objected to the domestic-service focus of the unemployment relief committees, and the bullying of unemployed women who refused unpaid live-in work. In some towns alternative organisations were started.
Labour Party activists set up the Wellington Unemployed Women Workers’ Association in 1932. Like the relief committees, the Wellington association provided lunches and an employment service. Its room in the Trades Hall was a place where unemployed women could meet, do their washing and ironing, and get assistance with personal problems.
Unemployed women in the 1930s were organised by others more often than they organised themselves. Activist Margaret Thorn, who helped set up Wellington’s alternative unemployed women’s group, recalled that ‘we wanted the women to do it themselves, but most were too miserable even to think’.2
Auckland activists set up women’s sections of the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) from 1932. A newspaper, the Working Woman, was started in 1934. Working women’s committees were set up across the country. In Huntly West a Māori Working Women’s Committee was set up by two Pākehā women.
The committees held conferences in 1934 and 1936. The first conference set up the Working Women’s Movement, and the second set up the United Council of Working Women. The links between the working women’s committees and the NUWM were strong. Some of the working women’s committees merged with NUWM women’s branches.
Women’s unemployment organisations, whether conservative or radical, were short-lived. Rates of unemployment among women dropped in the mid-1930s, so the need lessened, and the electing of a Labour government redirected radical energies.
When unemployment became widespread from the late 1970s to the 1990s, most of the unemployed groups set up were mixed, including women and men, Māori and Pākehā.
Exceptions were the Canterbury Women’s Employment Trust (1985) and the Ōtautahi Women’s Labour Pool (1984). The trust was set up in response to increasing unemployment among women. It provided employment and training opportunities, and promoted alternatives to full-time work, including job-sharing, flexible and part-time hours, and cooperatives.
The Ōtautahi Women’s Labour Pool existed for over a decade in Christchurch. It focused on helping women who were unemployed or on the domestic purposes benefit to become economically independent through access to better-paid, non-traditional trades like painting, carpentry and gardening. It provided training and a way in to self-employment or business.
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 – 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The number of women in the labour market rose from 525,087 in 1981 to 1,158,711 in 2018. The range of jobs done by women expanded. Some became lawyers, doctors and company directors. Others became labourers, storepeople and couriers. But although a few women gained trade qualifications, there were still jobs typically done by women and other jobs done by men.
From the late 1970s, the pay gap between men and women stalled at just over 20%. Unions and women’s organisations tried a new approach: pay equity.
Pay equity was based on the assessment and comparison of jobs done by women with jobs done by men. It had the potential to resolve the historic undervaluing of work typically done by women and to avoid the problem caused for equal pay by men and women doing different kinds of work.
In the 1980s and 2000s, unions and other organisations pushed for pay equity. In 1990, a change of government resulted in the repeal of a recently passed pay equity act before any claims were assessed. In the 2000s, there was a focus on pay equity in the public sector. A new government elected in 2008 shut down a pay and employment equity office before any claims were assessed.
In the 2010s, unions and women’s organisations pushed again for pay equity. An Employment Court judgment in a successful test case taken by the Service and Food Workers Union made it clear that the Equal Pay Act 1972 included pay equity. Numerous pay equity claims for public sector or government-funded occupational groups were made, and by 2022 many women had benefited from settlements.
Pay equity claims settled by late 2022 included those for social workers at Oranga Tamariki Ministry for Children and in community social service organisations, teacher aides, kaiarahi i te reo, administration staff in schools and kura, support workers in early childcare centres, and clerical and administrative workers in Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand. Claims for nurses, midwives, care and support workers, and teachers were among those that had not yet been settled.
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.
From the 1990s, CEVEP went in and out of recess according to the state of the push for pay equity. By the 2010s, CEVEP’s role had shifted to a focus on policy and the provision of pay equity expertise rather than campaigning. A major focus was the retention of the Equal Pay Act 1972 and the case law associated with it. In the 2000s, CEVEP fought hard to persuade the government not to replace the 1972 Act. With the passing of the Equal Pay Amendment Act 2020, it went into recess again.
Pay Equity Challenge (PEC) was set up in the late 2000s to take on the coalition and campaigning roles that had been fulfilled by CEPO from 1957 to 1972 and CEVEP from the 1980s to the 2000s. Like both those organisations, it had a mixed membership of women’s organisations and unions; members also included related organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Coalition.
PEC organised events around the country, made submissions to the government, provided campaign support to its member organisations, and kept reminding the media that the issue of pay equity had not gone away.
The Mind the Gap campaign was launched in 2021. Its primary focus was closing the gender pay gap. It was backed by unions, women’s groups and BusinessNZ. In early 2022 it launched its pay gap registry, inviting businesses to make the pay gap in their organisation public and offering help in working out what the gap was. It also supported research and undertook campaign activities such as petitioning Parliament.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
A long-term effect of women’s increasing workforce participation was an increase in the number of women in unions, and in unions’ interest in women’s issues. In the 1970s and 1980s, the clerical workers’ unions, the Distribution Workers’ Union and the Nurses’ Association were particularly active. A new union covering early childhood workers was set up in 1982. Individual unionists were also active, and by the end of the 1970s a women’s network was operating within the broader union movement.
After the government passed the Employment Contracts Act 1991 (ECA), unions lost many members and some collapsed or merged. Those with a scattered workforce, such as the clerical workers’ unions, found it particularly difficult. The increased workload that resulted when single-site or employer agreements replaced national awards meant that many unions could no longer prioritise women’s equity issues.
In 2021, 17% of employees belonged to a union. Women were just over 60% of all union members.
In the 1970s and 1980s, women’s advisory groups and positions were set up within trade unions. The Wellington Trades Council’s Women’s Sub-committee (1979) and the Federation of Labour (1976) and Combined State Unions (1984) women’s advisory committees were part of this development. Some unions created ‘women’s officer’ positions.
The New Zealand Working Women’s Council was set up in 1975 by labour activists with the slogan, ‘Equality, Education, Action’. It held a working women’s convention in 1977, published a book on working women, and provided support for women working within unions. Promoting the Working Women’s Charter, particularly within the Labour Party and the trade union movement, was an important part of the council’s work. The Labour Party and the Federation of Labour adopted the Working Women’s Charter as policy in 1980, and the Council stopped operating soon after.
In the early 1970s the feminist slogan ‘all women are working women’ was taken to a logical conclusion with the formation of the Housewives Union. The new union’s concerns varied greatly from place to place: in Auckland it was family planning, in Wellington, childcare centres, in Gisborne, open drains. Other groups pushed for wages for housework. The unions had little known predecessors – housewives unions were set up from 1912 to the 1950s.
The Working Women’s Charter was sometimes called a ‘bill of rights’ for working women. Discussed in New Zealand from the mid 1970s, it was drafted and adopted by the Working Women’s Convention in 1977 and adopted by the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FoL) in 1980. It included the right to work, the elimination of discrimination, equal pay for work of equal value, and equal opportunity. One of the rights claimed was access to sex education, contraception and abortion. This, plus its focus on women as workers, provoked vigorous opposition from some conservative groups, including Feminists for Life, Save our Homes and the Catholic Women’s League.
The Auckland Working Women’s Resource Centre was set up with the support of the Auckland Trades Council and its women’s sub-committee. The centre supported women unionists and workers, running courses in public speaking, showing health and safety videos in pubs, and sending community workers and Human Rights Commission staff into workplaces to talk to women. Its staff set up information stalls publicising workplace issues around the Auckland region. The Centre was still in existence in 2022.
The FoL and CSU women’s committees became Te Kauae Kaimahi Women’s Council when their parent organisations merged to become the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions in 1987. Te Kauae Kaimahi had a twofold focus: it worked to strengthen unions and to improve working women’s terms and conditions of employment. Pay and employment equity, work-life balance, working hours and leave (including parental leave), and health and safety (including action against sexual harassment) were major concerns. In the 21st century, the Council continued this work, and added new key issues: bringing the reality of paid employment for Māori and Pacific women to public attention, the position of women within unions, and the need for domestic violence leave.
By the 1990s the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) – the representative organisation for primary school teachers set up in 1883 – had a majority of women members. After the ECA was passed the Education Service Paraprofessional Association, which represented support staff (many of whom were female), joined the NZEI. After the demise of the clerical workers’ unions, school clerical staff joined the NZEI. In 1994 the Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa amalgamated with the NZEI, forming NZEI Te Riu Roa.
The New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation (NZNO) was formed in 1993, when the Nurses’ Association and the private-sector Nurses’ Union (formed in 1973) amalgamated. From 1996 the NZNO included medical radiologists, technologists, scientific officers, pharmacists and dietitians. The NZNO continued to have an overwhelming majority of women members – 94% in 2009.
Coney, Sandra. Standing in the sunshine: a history of New Zealand women since they won the vote. Auckland: Viking, 1993.
Else, Anne, ed. Women together: a history of women’s organisations in New Zealand / Ngā rōpū wāhine o te motu (2nd edition). Wellington: Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2018.
Simpkin, Gay and Marie Russell. Women will rise! Recalling the Working Women’s Charter. Paraparaumu: Steele Roberts, 2022.