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Gender inequalities

by Anne Else

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.

Areas of discrimination

Discrimination on the basis of gender and unequal citizenship rights have been controversial issues since the 19th century. Gender discrimination continues to provoke public debate and political activism in the early 21st century.

The meaning of equal citizenship has been much more complex and controversial for women than for men, because it has centred on changing ideas about women and ‘women’s role’. The state and other powerful and (until very recently) solidly male institutions, such as the clergy, professional groups and trade unions, have all shaped and used these ideas in ways that have profoundly affected women. Women’s organisations and movements have had an important influence too, especially among women – and not always in favour of greater equality.

Claiming citizenship

‘We are human beings as well as women, and our humanity must take precedence over our womanhood. We are New Zealanders and therefore citizens …’1 When Kate Sheppard, the leader of the women’s suffrage campaign, spoke those words in 1897, New Zealand women had won the vote, but they were not yet equal citizens in many other respects.


The use of the word ‘gender’ to describe the way in which society shapes women and men and structures their lives became common in the 1980s. Phrases like ‘sex discrimination’, which had been used in the 1970s, became ‘gender discrimination’.

Women’s place in society

Inequality resulted from the limited role women were allowed in society. From colonisation in the 19th century to the 1960s women’s role was broadly seen by powerful Pākehā institutions as private, though it had public consequences. It centred on marriage, motherhood, and taking care of husband, home and children. Men’s role was to support their wives and children financially, and to represent both themselves and their families in public affairs.

This division influenced every aspect of women’s lives, regardless of their own talents and ambitions, or their economic and social realities (such as having to raise children alone). It also had a profound effect on public culture, which focused almost entirely on men and their interests.

Differences between women and men

Women’s restricted role was justified by beliefs about innate differences between men and women. Well into the 20th century women were still being portrayed as both the guardians of morality, keeping male misbehaviour in check, and the ‘weaker sex’, unable to cope with the hardships and dangers of public and commercial life. Yet heavy physical work, low pay and exploitation were typical of women’s work in areas such as domestic service, farming and nursing.

Areas of discrimination

There has been discrimination on the basis of gender in many areas of life, including marriage and family, employment, education, culture, religion and sport. Until the late 20th century women’s participation in politics was limited in overt and covert ways.

Discrimination against men

In the 1990s and early 21st century some people argued that there was discrimination against boys and men in certain areas, including education and the custody of children after divorce. In another area – health – men became concerned about lack of action on prostate cancer and male suicide. They initiated campaigns around men’s health issues and men’s rights to the custody of their children when parents' partnerships ended and .

Responses to discrimination

For women, change between the mid-19th century and the early 21st century has been profound. There have been two periods of intense activism. In the 1880s and 1890s women and their male supporters fought for women to be able to vote, for women’s rights within marriage, and against the double standard that prevailed in relation to sexual behaviour. In 1893, as a result of efforts by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and other suffragist groups, New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women (Pākehā and Māori) the right to vote in national elections. Many women also worked to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act 1869, which legalised the inspection of women for venereal disease and their confinement for compulsory treatment. This legislation was repealed in 1910. Women also highlighted the need for women’s rights within marriage and as a result the Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1884. Married women got the right to hold property in their own name and enter into contracts independently of their husbands.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s there was another explosion of activism, this time focusing on broad cultural issues, political representation, employment issues, and sexuality and reproductive rights. Outside these periods work to bring about change continued. For example, different pay rates for women and men in the same job and low pay for women-dominated occupations were contested from the 1950s into the 21st century. Māori women have actively supported women’s and Māori rights since the mid-20th century. However, there was no steady improvement, and discrimination sometimes grew worse in certain areas.

Human Rights Commission Act 1977

These bursts of activism prompted legal change. Open discrimination on the basis of sex – for example, in employment – has been unlawful since the passage of the Human Rights Commission Act 1977. The Human Rights Act 1993 barred discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, pregnancy, marital status (including living in a de facto relationship) or family status (including having or not having responsibility for the care of children or other dependants).

The 21st century

Full equality and citizenship requires much more than changes in the law, and in the early 21st century deep-seated inequalities remained. Lower pay for work typically done by women, men’s higher chance of reaching a workplace position of authority, men’s over-representation on the boards of private companies, and greater media attention to and funding of male sporting activities, were examples of continuing discrimination. There was also a surge of concern, prompted by overseas revelations, about sexual harassment of women by men in workplaces.

    • Kate Sheppard, Presidential address, second session of National Council of Women, Christchurch, March 1897. The White Ribbon, April 1897, p. 2. Back


Marriage and family have been the focus of much attention, and change in this area has been substantial. From the mid-19th century broad social and economic shifts, together with the sustained efforts of committed women and men, expanded legal and financial equality for married women. Legal discrimination against unmarried mothers ended in the late 20th century, and against people in de facto relationships in the early 21st century.

Marriage in the mid-19th century

In colonial New Zealand most Pākehā women needed to marry – few could earn enough to live independently. The high rate of marriage among women (well over 90% for most of the 19th century), and the increasing rate among men as more women arrived in New Zealand, made it strongly influential on women’s lives.

In the mid-19th century a married couple was a single financial and legal entity, controlled by the husband. All of a wife’s money and property, whether acquired before or after marriage, was her husband’s. A wife had no right to a share of her husband’s (or their joint) earnings or property during marriage, or to part of his estate after he died.

Divorce was virtually unobtainable, and fathers had legal authority over children.

Home ownership

Home ownership was near-impossible for married women before 1884, as husband and wife were one legal entity, controlled by the husband. It remained unusual for married women to own property for decades afterwards. Women’s rights activist Margaret Sievwright was backed by her husband William, who put his money where his mouth was. When they bought their family home in 1884, the year the Married Women’s Property Act was passed, it was put in Margaret’s name.

Property and money

Parliament passed laws in 1860 and 1870 improving the position of wives deserted by their husbands, and in 1867 allowing divorce. In 1884 the Married Women’s Property Act gave women within marriage a legal existence for the first time: it let them hold property, make contracts in their own right, and sue and be sued.

In the 20th century the position of unmarried mothers and women in de facto relationships was also addressed. The transfer of family property to a widow was made easier (1950), and fathers’ support of unmarried mothers and their children was legislated for (1968).

Support for women’s financial independence within marriage developed slowly. From 1946 to 1991 the family benefit was paid to all mothers. For many of those not in paid work, it was the only personal income they did not have to ask for. In 1977 wives got their own old-age pension, and from 1986 they were paid half of the couple’s unemployment benefit.

Divorce and custody

Some of this legislation recreated or allowed continued discrimination. Divorce became possible in 1867, but while a wife could be divorced for a single act of adultery, a woman could divorce a man only if his adultery was combined with cruelty, desertion, bigamy, incest, rape, sodomy or bestiality. Grounds for divorce were equalised and extended in 1898.

From 1976 wives were entitled to half the matrimonial property when a marriage ended, recognising women’s non-financial contribution to marriage. In 2002 these provisions were extended to de facto and same-sex relationships of at least three years.

In the mid-19th century a father’s right to the children of a marriage was absolute. By the 1970s, when couples divorced or separated, judges almost always awarded day-to-day custody of children to their mother. From the 1980s some men began arguing that this presumption in favour of mothers meant that they were being discriminated against.

In the early 21st century, parents who were separating were encouraged to negotiate arrangements for the care of their children. Often these arrangements involve shared care of children, even if they spend more time with one parent. Parenting Workbooks are available to parents to help them work out what arrangements will best suit them and their children. Most arrangements for the care of children are made without involving the Family Court. Parents are encouraged to set up arrangements that enable children to continue to have ‘loving relationships with both parents as much as possible’.

Since changes to the Family Court in 2014, a range of options have been available to parents who cannot agree on how they will care for their children when they separate. They can attend a ‘Parenting through Separation’ course, use the Family Disputes Resolution system, or apply to the Family Court for a decision about the care of the children. Only a small number of parents apply to the Family Court for decisions about day-to-day care of their children and contact arrangements for parents who are not day-to-day caregivers.


Māori celebrated sexuality, talked openly about sex, and accepted that sex before marriage occurred. The exception was puhi (high-born women) destined for political marriages. European explorers and settlers commented on the differences between Māori and non-Māori views on female chastity. A ‘double standard’ governed sexual activity among European settlers, slowly decreasing in strength in the later 20th century. Men’s sexual activity outside marriage was much more acceptable than women’s. Women who had sex before marriage or with partners other than their husbands were stigmatised. Blame for prostitution and illegitimate births was laid squarely on women. Missionaries brought these ideas about sexuality to Māori communities. Sexual violence and sexual harassment were common, but were seldom discussed or reported.

Marital rape was not a crime and wives did not have the right to refuse their husbands sex. Until the 1960s, they had no independent access to effective contraception. Domestic violence was common, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries was seen by many as a man's right. Before 1896 the age of consent was 12, allowing men to take advantage of girls. Prosecution, let alone conviction, for rape was rare, and incest was not a crime.

The age of consent was raised to 16 in 1896, and incest was criminalised in 1900. The gap between the law and life remained wide. As any prosecution for sex with an under-age girl had to be brought within one month of the offence, the law was little more than an ineffective threat. Incest, like other forms of sexual violation, continued to have a low reporting rate.

The first legal measure aimed at protecting women from violence by male partners came in 1982, and in 1985 marital rape became a crime.

By the early 21st century there had been several major updates to the laws on violence against women. Yet around one in three (35%) of ever-partnered New Zealand women reported having experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence. All forms of violence against women continued to be under-reported and conviction rates remained low.1

Contraception and abortion

Information about contraception became increasingly available in the 1960s. The female contraceptive pill arrived in 1960, and over time revolutionised control of reproduction. Abortions remained difficult to obtain until 1974, when the Auckland Medical Aid Clinic opened. From 1977 the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act controlled access to abortion, and clinics opened in other centres. It became legal to have an abortion if two certifying consultants (doctors) agreed that continuing the pregnancy would result in serious danger to a woman’s mental or physical health. Most abortions in New Zealand are certified on the basis of a serious danger to a woman’s mental health. Abortion services are free for pregnant women who are eligible for funded health care.

In the early 21st century most abortions in New Zealand are certified on the basis of serious danger to a woman's mental health. Abortion services are free for pregnant women who are eligible for funded health care. However, the regulation of abortion continues to be controversial. Right to Life New Zealand challenged the Abortion Supervisory Committee’s management of abortion in the courts in 2008. A Court of Appeal judgement in 2011 found that the Abortion Supervisory Committee could not review a certifying consultant’s decision and that there was no foetal right to life as Right to Life New Zealand claimed.

In 2014 the Family Planning Association claimed that New Zealand law was outdated and that abortion should be managed like any other health service. During the 2017 election campaign, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern stated that abortion should be removed from the Crimes Act and that women should be able to make their own decisions about terminating their pregnancies.

    • Janet L. Fanslow and Elizabeth M. Robinson. 'Sticks, stones, or words? Counting the prevalence of different types of initmate partner violence reported by New Zealand women.' Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma 20, no. 7 (2011): 741-759. Back

Politics and citizenship

In 150 years, women in New Zealand moved from political insignificance to a position of legal equality with men. In the mid-19th century, women could not vote, stand for election, serve on a jury, sit as a judge, or keep their New Zealand nationality if married to a foreign national. In the late 19th century women won the vote; in the 20th century they won the right to stand for Parliament, to retain their own nationality after marriage, to serve on a jury, and to sit as justices of the peace and judges. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was established in 1986. In the 21st century women still lagged behind in practice, but the possibility of equality was real.

Prime ministers and party leaders

In the early 21st century New Zealand led the world in terms of women holding leading political positions. There have been three women prime ministers: Jenny Shipley (1997–99), who led the National Party from 1997 to 2001; Helen Clark, the first elected woman prime minister (1999–2008), who was leader of the Labour Party from 1993 to 2008; and Jacinda Ardern, who became leader of the Labour Party in August 2017 and prime minister less than three months later.

In 2018 both the Māori and Green parties had Māori women, Kaapua Smith and Marama Davidson, as co-leaders.

The vote

The campaign for women’s suffrage – the right to vote in national elections – was led by the first wave of women activists in the 1880s and 1890s, working through national organisations that predated political parties. Their campaign succeeded in 1893.

Running schools, hospitals and pubs

In the decades before women could vote in national elections, they took part in electing local bodies and school committees, and liquor licensing, hospital and charitable-aid boards. Although some hesitated to take on a public position, others jumped at the opportunity. In the first school committee elections, in the late 1870s, a Mrs Walker became chairman of the Selwyn district committee. Other women followed.

Members of Parliament

The legal ban that prevented women standing for Parliament reflected strong disapproval of, and disbelief in, women’s suitability for positions of public authority. The law was changed more easily than custom. Although women could stand for election from 1919 – 26 years after winning the right to vote – it was not until the 1980s that they were more than a tiny proportion of members of Parliament.

In 1933 Elizabeth McCombs (Labour) became the first female MP when she won the Lyttelton seat left vacant by her husband’s death. Iriaka Rātana (Labour) also succeeded her husband to become the first Māori woman MP, winning the Western Māori seat in 1949. Mabel Howard, another Labour MP, was the first woman to become a Cabinet Minister, in 1947. Until 1960 only one woman had ever entered Parliament in a general election, rather than a by-election.

By 1970 many women had sought selection and election, but only 11 (seven Labour and four National) had ever become MPs. At the end of the 1970s women had never held more than 6.3% of the seats in the House, and only four had ever served in Cabinet.

Yet in 1993 women held 21% of seats, an exceptionally good result for a first-past-the-post electoral system. A jump to 29% followed the change to proportional representation in 1996; the figure rose to almost 34% in 2008 before stabilising at around 30%. The 46 women MPs returned in 2017 made up 38% of Parliament, the highest proportion ever. In 2018 New Zealand ranked 19th out of nearly 120 countries for female representation in Parliament. In 2019 there were 49 women MPs, 41% of Parliament.

Causes of change

Women’s increasing representation in Parliament was the result of organised pressure by women during the 1970s and 1980s, as well as electoral change. Women’s political-party and non-party organisations (such as the Labour Women’s Council and the Women’s Electoral Lobby) worked hard to get more women recruited as candidates and moved up the party ranks. New Zealand’s shift to a mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system, in which nearly half of MPs are elected on party lists, also worked in favour of women (and other previously marginalised groups).

Local government

Local government has a big impact on women’s everyday lives. Women who paid rates on properties were able to vote and stand for election to local bodies from 1867. Elizabeth Yates was elected mayor of Onehunga in 1893, becoming the first woman mayor in the British Empire.

By 1979 women held around 20% of elected local authority positions. The peak year for women’s representation on city, district and regional councils was 1998, when 31% of councillors and 25% of mayors were women. These proportions declined as local government reorganisation reduced the number of elected positions from over 5,000 to around 1,700, narrowing an important path into politics for women. In the 2016 local body elections, 38% of those elected and 19% of mayors were women.

‘Women’s issues’ in politics

From the 1980s women began to achieve a much more significant presence in national politics and in other important political arenas, such as the union movement. The government began to pay more attention to issues such as domestic and sexual violence, and the competing demands of paid and unpaid work.

The approach of women MPs to ‘women’s issues’ has usually depended on their political stance. This was evident in the swing to ‘New Right’ policies between 1984 and 1998, which cut back the welfare state and had a severe impact on low-income women. During the early 1990s, when some of these reforms were being implemented, the ministers of finance, social welfare and women’s affairs were women.

Paid employment

The 19th century

Paid employment was the exception rather than the rule for New Zealand women in the 19th century. In 1874 a fifth of women over 15 had paid jobs, and in 1891 the proportion was still less than a quarter. Domestic service, tailoring, shop work and, as the century wore on, factory work absorbed most employed women.

Women were excluded from many occupations. Banks, businesses, post and telegraph offices, teaching and nursing, and the professions and trades (apart from tailoring) were male-only or male-dominated. In the later 19th and early 20th centuries, women began working in many of these areas. Wages paid to women were substantially lower than – often about half of – those of men doing the same or similar work, and they were generally kept in low-level positions.

Women almost invariably left paid work when they married. Many were probably happy to do so – running a household and raising children was a demanding job – but even those who wished to continue in employment mostly could not stay on.

Tax assumption

From 1914 to 1972 married women were reminded that their paid work was officially secondary every time they opened their pay packet. They were taxed at the higher secondary rate, and eligible for none of the concessions available to married men.

The 20th century

By the Second World War 60% of women aged 15–24 had paid jobs, and almost all women were in employment before marrying. After the war, it gradually became more acceptable for married women to have a job, especially as the need for teachers, nurses and clerical staff grew with the baby boom and the expanding welfare state.

By 1966 women made up 27% of the paid workforce, and 41% of employed women were married. Married or single, women still did not get the same pay or opportunities as men; it was believed they did not have the same skills or responsibilities.

Over time, more and more mothers also had paid employment. However, the state did not invest in childcare or even count how many pre-schoolers had mothers with paid jobs.

Job equals neglect

'Working mothers' continued to be disapproved of in the 1970s. Prime Minister Rob Muldoon told a Young Nationals meeting, ‘Two families may live side by side and be identical in every way, except that in one case the mother goes to work, and in the other case she doesn’t. The effect on the children in these two families is in the one case relative affluence, as against poverty, and in the other case adequate care as against neglect.’1

Although legislation required the introduction of equal pay for equal work in the public service (1960) and the private sector (1972), women’s earnings and careers were often still treated as secondary to men’s, and to domestic responsibilities. Very few women had the same opportunities as men. Many occupations and most senior positions remained male preserves long after formal barriers had been removed.

By 2014 paid employment was the norm for women with children. 58% of sole mothers and 70% of partnered mothers were in paid employment (compared with 83% of women without dependent children). 

Paid work in the 21st century

In the early 21st century women were not only permitted but expected to have paid jobs, and to support themselves and their children if they needed to. They also continued to do most of the unpaid work.

Many occupations were still done mainly by men or by women, and those done by women were paid substantially less. The gender pay gap (the difference in the median hourly earnings of women and men in full-time and part-time paid work) reduced between 1998 and 2012 from 16.3% to 9.1%, but rose to 12% in 2016. Only 20% of the gender pay gap can be explained by differences in education or training between women and men or the occupations and industries in which they work. The Ministry for Women has argued that the rest of the difference is due to causes such as behaviour, attitudes and biases. They argue that the gap can be reduced only by collective action from a range of participants, including workers, employers, careers advisors, business leaders and employer groups, and the government.

In November 2016 the government announced that it would accept the recommendations of a Joint Working Party on Pay Equity and introduce legislation in 2017 that would enable women to negotiate pay equity claims with their employers, using the framework of the Employment Relations Act 2000. The Employment (Pay Equity and Equal Pay) Bill was introduced in August 2017, but withdrawn from Parliament after a change of government in October 2017. In 2018 the Labour/New Zealand First Coalition government was planning new legislation to facilitate pay equity claims.

An equal pay settlement for those working with the aged and disabled in residential homes and home and community support services was reached in April 2017, following a decision by the Employment Court that there was systematic undervaluation of this care and support work. Further pay equity claims were pursued by unions on behalf of female dominated occupations in 2017 and 2018. 

Many more women than men managed to do unpaid work for their families by spending some years working part-time and taking lower-level positions. Fourteen weeks of paid pre-natal and post-natal parental leave was introduced in 2002. This was extended to 18 weeks in 2016 and 22 weeks in 2018. From 1 July 2020, 26 weeks of paid parental leave will be available for those who meet the criteria .

In the early 21st century, pre-school childcare for three and four-year-olds was free for 20 hours a week, but only in six-hour blocks, and school hours did not match the hours of full-time jobs. There was no legal entitlement to family leave to care for sick children or for ill, disabled or elderly relatives.

    • Quoted in Christine Gillespie, 'The road ahead for the women's movement: out of the womb and into the world.' In Women in New Zealand society, edited by Beryl Hughes and Phillida Bunkle. Auckland; Boston: G. Allen & Unwin, 1980, p. 108. Back


Gender discrimination in education, as in other areas, has been evident in both formal and informal ways. Girls have had to put up with less generous facilities, lower expectations and a narrower range of subjects. In the workforce, the jobs related to these subject areas have been less well paid.

Access to school and university

Primary schooling became universally free and available from 1877. The first girls’ secondary school opened in Dunedin in 1871, 15 years after the first boys’ secondary school. While access to primary school was granted automatically, girls’ access to secondary education required vigorous campaigning. Entry to university was relatively easily negotiated once secondary schooling was approved. Women were able to attend university once the University of Otago opened in 1871.


Educating girls was seen by many 19th-century parents as a waste of time. Their daughters would marry, keep house and raise children, none of which needed formal schooling. At both primary and secondary levels, girls were less likely than boys to attend school. Their performance of household tasks was a significant reason for this.

Girls remained less likely to attend school, especially secondary school, in the early decades of the 20th century. From 1944, when secondary school became compulsory to the age of 14, girls’ attendance matched that of boys.

Those going to university were an elite, and the numbers of women fluctuated. During the two world wars the percentage of women students increased, but during the economic depression of the 1930s (particularly when the teachers’ colleges were closed), the percentage of women dropped. It did not recover to its 1920s level until the 1970s. In the 21st century there were more female than male undergraduates. In 2014, 61.3% of New Zealand graduates were women.

Limiting learning

In the early 20th century, perceptions of women’s role in society and family began to shape the primary and secondary curriculum to a greater extent. A servant shortage and fears that higher education ‘unfitted’ women for marriage and motherhood led to domestic science becoming compulsory for all girls from 1917. It displaced all other science teaching, except for botany, below the sixth form.

Schooling for girls in the Native School system showed the same tendency. Māori girls were destined for motherhood and the ‘rescue’ of their 'race'; to this end, domestic skills, health and hygiene were prominent in their curriculum.

The same focus on domestic skills affected the technical schools that were set up from 1900. Girls could take courses in typing, shorthand and book-keeping – the trade-related courses boys took were closed to them. In some technical schools they were also taught domestic skills.

Avoiding housework

Many girls didn’t want to learn domestic skills alongside typing. Parents who agreed that this was a waste of time sent their daughters to private commercial colleges instead of their local technical school. Rather than badly paid, low-status domestic service, these girls aimed for clerical work – an occupation offering reasonable pay, limited hours and higher status.

Difficult and expensive subjects

There were other differences in the secondary curriculum. Mathematics in particular was identified as too taxing for girls, whose powers of ‘origination’ were seen as inadequate. Greek was not taught because of its content: delicate and pure-minded girls should not be exposed to references to homosexuality. Physics and chemistry were also less likely to be taught in girls’ schools, in part because of the expense of laboratories and equipment, but also because of a lack of female teachers trained in these subjects.

Changing expectations, changing achievements

The early secondary schools encouraged high aspirations among their students, but in the 20th century many girls were steered toward traditional occupations that were poorly paid and relatively low-status. An exception to this were elite schools, which continued to encourage able students.

In the 1970s and early 1980s some parents, teachers and students, influenced by the resurgent feminist movement, challenged the range of subjects taught and schools’ limited aspirations for girls. In the late 20th century expectations of girls increased and their achievements in high school surpassed those of boys. They also began to study a wider range of subjects.

By the late 1990s and early 21st century, girls were performing better than boys in national school qualifications completed in the last three years of high school. National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) qualifications were introduced in 2002, replacing School Certificate and Bursary qualifications. In 2015 girls performed better than boys in both external and internal assessment at all three NCEA levels and University Entrance. Girls and boys performed almost equally in New Zealand Scholarship examinations – the highest level school-leaving qualification. However, while girls were succeeding in subjects like mathematics, information technology and physics, they were still less likely to pursue further qualifications and careers in these fields.


Although women were able to attend universities from the time they were established, areas of study such as medicine and law were almost closed to them. Arts and humanities subjects were regarded as more womanly. In 1911, as part of the drive to encourage efficient home management, diploma and degree courses in ‘home science’ were introduced. It was not until the 1990s that women appeared in significant numbers in courses such as law and engineering.

By the 21st century, women were more likely to participate in tertiary education (including university education) than men. In 2015 women were 61% of those enrolled in bachelors and postgraduate qualifications. They were, however, still under-represented in what were increasingly identified as STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. While they were over 60% of those enrolled in Bachelor of Science degrees in the 2010s, they were more likely to be involved in the health sciences than in engineering, information and communications technology or physics. As a result, special programmes were established in the early 21st century to encourage women into careers using new technologies in which there will continue to be job growth.

Discrimination against boys?

From the 1990s, as girls’ educational results improved, there was increasing concern that education discriminated against boys. Teaching methods and, at primary-school level, the predominance of female teachers were seen as supportive of girls’ rather than boys’ learning.

Boys tended to learn to read later than girls (as they do internationally), but this (like some other differences) was strongly affected by ethnicity, with Māori boys most likely to have difficulties. The socio-economic background of students was also a factor, as was the pressure on boys not to be associated with ‘feminine’ activities such as reading. Research done in the 1990s found that being taught by women did not reduce boys’ academic achievement.

New Zealand children’s performances in international tests applied in 2015 indicated that boys performed slightly better than girls of similar ages in mathematics, while girls did much better than boys in reading. There were no significant differences in their achievements in science. Average achievement was above the OECD average for both sexes.

Arts and culture

Discrimination in the performing arts, fine arts (such as painting and sculpture), writing and popular culture has varied over time. Funding, exhibition space, media attention and (at times) publication have all been harder for women to obtain. Men have tended to dominate prestigious and expensive genres.

In broader cultural terms, the face of 21st-century New Zealand was still mainly male. Overall, the news media showed women in much smaller numbers than men, and in a much more limited range of roles. Women’s perspectives and opinions were much less likely to feature than those of men.

Performing arts and film

In colonial times, women who appeared on stage as professional singers, musicians and actors were virtually equal to the men they worked with. Māori women took part in the many concert parties flourishing by the 1900s.

Until the 1920s some women managed to combine performing careers with marriage and family. The cinema, especially the talkies, killed off many professional performing opportunities after the First World War. The amateurs carried on, with women not only taking leading roles on stage, but winning recognition as gifted producers, directors and organisers (though rarely as playwrights or composers). An example was Nola Millar, who moved from amateur theatre in the 1930s and 1940s to forming a professional company, the New Zealand Players, and becoming the first director of the New Zealand Drama School.

In the later 20th century it again became possible for a woman to make a living as an actor. But parts for women, especially as they grew older, were more restricted than those for men, and still more likely to be decoratively sexual, or playing the girlfriend, wife or mother. Men dominated direction and production, and their projects were more likely to be funded. Gradually women gained respect as directors of professional theatres. Cathy Downes is an example of an actor (famous for her one-woman shows about Katherine Mansefield) who has also worked as artistic director for The Court Theatre in Christchurch and as a playwright.

Women television directors and documentary-makers produced their first work in the mid-1970s, and the first feature films produced and directed by women came out in the mid-1980s. Women filmmakers included Gaylene Preston, Jane Campion and Niki Caro. Women performers such as Pat Evison, Kate Harcourt, Rima Te Wiata and Nancy Brunning took on a range of more interesting parts and often moved between work in theatre, radio, television and film.

Writing and painting

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, high culture was seen as morally and spiritually elevating, and was closely associated with women – laying the ground for New Zealand’s most prominent early painter, Frances Hodgkins, and writer, Katherine Mansfield.

Although fine-arts training was fully open to women, it was expensive. Many turned to writing, but women were barred from most of the usual apprenticeship routes in journalism and from the pubs where male writers commonly met. Still, by 1936 women were 12% of professional writers, 30% of commercial artists and 62% of other artists and art students. One of these professional writers was Iris Wilkinson, who used the pen name of Robin Hyde and worked as a journalist while also writing poetry and novels.

From the 1930s to the 1960s women painters did better than writers in sustaining serious work and gaining an audience and recognition. Though writers such as Mary Scott produced highly successful popular novels centring on women’s lives and set in New Zealand, the literary culture focused on and valued work that expressed masculine concerns and views. Women writers did not flourish. Women’s own experience was not an acceptable subject for serious cultural expression.

The ocean of sex

In the 1960s author Marilyn Duckworth was told off by writer and English professor H. Winston Rhodes for ‘paddl[ing] in the ocean of sex’.1 She was lucky to be mentioned at all – most women writing in New Zealand were ignored by literary pundits. Duckworth, sister of poet Fleur Adcock, was unabashed, and went on to publish novels, short stories, poetry, radio plays and television scripts, many of them about sexual relationships.

1970s and 1980s: women gain ground

A major shift began in the 1970s, and in 1975, International Women’s Year, nine new collections by women poets were published. Novels and reprints of earlier work followed. Feminists set up women’s galleries, bookshops, publishers and theatre groups, as well as actors’ and artists’ pressure groups. They made cultural space for women’s perspectives, including on ‘unspeakable’ issues such as domesticity and sexuality.

Mainstream publishers and galleries took notice, and women’s work began to draw a wider audience and more critical attention, prompting a backlash from some disgruntled men. Some women, including writers Fiona Kidman and Patricia Grace, and artists Robin White and Robyn Kahukiwa, were for the first time able to combine sustained achievement in the arts with long-term heterosexual partnerships and motherhood.

Craft arts

From the interwar years women were prominent in the development of craft art, which was boosted by postwar school and evening classes. Pottery was an egalitarian field from the outset; it won respect more quickly than weaving, which had to contend with being seen as an ephemeral female pursuit.

Māori and Pasifika women’s groups fostered female crafts such as making kākahu (cloaks) and tīvaevae (quilts), asserting their status as art that could stand alongside traditionally male crafts such as carving. While weaving was a traditional practice among Māori, tīvaevae was a craft developed by women in Cook Islands after contact with the wives of London Missionary Society members who taught them quilting and needlework in the 19th century. These forms of fibre art were often produced collaboratively.

Skills in cloak making and other fibre arts declined among Māori women in the first part of the 20th century. These skills were revived in the late 20th century due to the efforts of women like Diggeress Te Kanawa (Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Kinohaku), who promoted the revival of weaving with the support of the Māori Women’s Welfare League and the establishment of Te Roopu Raranga Whatu o Aotearoa, the National Māori Weavers Collective of New Zealand.

In the early 21st century exhibitions of traditional and contemporary fibre arts were mounted at Pataka Museum in Porirua and Te Papa Museum in Wellington. The Eternal Thread – Te Aho Mutunga Kore toured New Zealand in 2004 and the USA between 2005 and 2007. These exhibitions illustrated the aesthetic and artistic value of women’s skills and creativity in weaving.

A precarious living

In the early 21st century, for all but the top few, the arts still provided a living that was no more than precarious, and this was more so for women than for men. But as both makers and subjects, women featured alongside men in every kind of creative activity, including poetry, film and popular music, as well as in the leadership of national cultural institutions.

    • H. Winston Rhodes, New Zealand fiction since 1945: a critical survey of recent novels and short stories. Dunedin: J. McIndoe, 1968, p. 51. Back


In the mid-19th century women settlers in New Zealand did not play sport. The clothing of elite Pakehā women limited breathing and movement. The ideal feminine beauty was soft, delicate, and pale. Feminine conduct required gentleness and grace, restraint and cooperation rather than the vigorous play of muscles, aggression and competition. Public activity for elite women was approved of only if it was decorous.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sport contributed to immense changes in women’s lives. Constricting clothing was loosened and lightened, and what was seen as an attractive appearance came to include a healthy glow. Public activity and strenuous physicality became more acceptable for girls and women.

By the 21st century women played every sport men did, competing at the highest levels.

Early games

Women settlers began to play sport in the 1870s. First croquet, then lawn tennis, swimming, golf, cycling, hockey and netball (then known as basketball) were tried. Many of these games were new to New Zealand. This engagement in sometimes vigorous activity was often commented on, not always approvingly.

When women tried rugby, cricket and cycling there was particularly strong opposition. Women who played sport, especially sports already strongly associated with men, were seen as masculinising themselves and upsetting the balance between the sexes.

Access to swimming pools and playing fields was a constant problem. When women shared facilities with men, it was almost always on a less-than-equal basis.

Early 20th century: sporting activity increases

By the 1910s, sport and physical activity was supported by a number of authorities, primarily as a means to a traditional end: ensuring that women were healthy, competent mothers. Despite this approval, women’s sport continued to suffer from limited access to sports grounds at school and post-school levels.

Playing fields

Frustrated in 1920s Auckland by limited access for women to sports grounds and facilities dominated by men, the local YWCA started fundraising. It was so successful that it was able to outbid men’s sports groups, gaining control of a 6-hectare sports ground. Men took a back seat, admitted only ‘as far as space would permit’.1

There was an explosion of sporting activity amongst less privileged working girls and women after the First World War. Often organised by the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association), company-based teams competed with each other locally and nationally. The YWCA built gyms for female members and promoted fitness classes for women.

Decision-making and coaching

Men often dominated decision-making in women’s sports. When a player proposed in 1908 that officers of the New Zealand Women’s Hockey Association should be female, the suggestion was ridiculed. A century later, women continued to be under-represented at decision-making levels in many sports. A breakthrough occurred in 2016 when Farah Palmer, a former captain of the national team, became the first woman elected to the board of New Zealand Rugby.

A 2007 study of gender and sport found that of the 328 people serving on national sports boards, 87 (27%) were women. There had been no change in the gender balance of national sports boards since the mid-1990s. In 2011, 65% of New Zealand Olympic sport boards reached the 20% female-membership threshold set by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) (compared to 52% of boards in 2007), while 13% of the boards had no women (22% in 2007). In 2015 the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s efforts to involve women as sports managers and team members were recognised at the IOC’s annual Women in Sport awards. The World Trophy Award recognised, among other things, the development of a women coaches’ network and the profiling of successful women athletes as role models for girls.

Blokes and sheep

When a New Zealand encyclopedia was published in 1984, it showed 156 photographs of men, including 15 of individual All Blacks (plus a group photo), 19 of sheep, and only 16 of women. By then, this ‘rugby, racing and beer’ approach was past its use-by date, but for decades it had been the public face of New Zealand popular culture.

In New Zealand women comprise 95% of netball players. Netball is the most popular team sport played by girls and women. The international success of the Silver Ferns national team, keen competition between semi-professional teams and high levels of participation by women in club netball have ensured significant commercial sponsorship and high levels of spectator and television interest. Involvement on the board of Netball New Zealand has been a route for some women into leadership in other sporting fields.

Lower visibility

Sportswomen have been far less visible than sportsmen. When the numbers playing are taken into account, the space and time given to women’s sports in newspapers, radio and television has been far less than that given to men’s sport.

Over three decades, male New Zealand sports players received 80% of media coverage, females less than 10%. While the Black Ferns national women’s rugby team has been very successful internationally, they still have less status, lower funding and much less media attention than the male All Blacks team. A breakthrough in financial support for elite women rugby players occurred in March 2018, when New Zealand Rugby agreed to professional contracts of $40,000-45,000 per year for 30 of the best 15-a-side women rugby players. The amount they will receive is much lower than male national rugby players get; however, it is the outcome of effort over many years to address gender inequalities in New Zealand rugby.

Women cricket players also receive much less financial support and media attention than male players, although their situation improved to some extent when the women’s and men’s cricket associations merged in 1992. 

While women were initially seen as lacking the strength and endurance needed for athletic completion, by the late 20th century they were engaging in a full range of track and field events, including marathons. Some of New Zealand’s most successful athletes in the late 20th century were women distance runners such as Lorraine Moller, Anne Audain and Allison Roe. In the early 21st century, Beatrice Faumuina and Valerie Adams were international stars in the field events of discus and shotput respectively.

In the early 21st century the limited coverage of sportswomen was heavily skewed in favour of elite athletes, while mid-level players were often ignored or marginalised.

    • Quoted in Marion Wood, 'Young Women's Christian Association of Aotearoa/New Zealand 1878'. In Women together: a history of women’s organisations in New Zealand: nga ropu wahine o te motu, edited by Anne Else. Wellington: Historical Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs: Daphne Brasell Associates, 1993, p. 126. Back


Women in the 19th-century church

Christianity’s influence on colonial New Zealand society extended well beyond the church doors. The mainstream denominations – including Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and Anglicans – presented the subordinate position of women as divinely ordained, embedding this belief in their language, rituals and institutional structures.

Women could not become ministers or priests, could not hold official positions, and could not speak during services or official meetings. They were members of the congregation, supporters and fundraisers, and (for Prostestants) hard-working ministers' wives.

In the non-conformist churches – all much smaller than the mainstream denominations – women had a more equal place. In the Society of Friends (Quakers), Bible Christians and Salvation Army, women were on more equal terms with men. Congregationalists and some Methodist and Baptist groups allowed women to preach or speak on religious matters in public.

Women’s church organisations formed from the 1870s onwards. Methodist women’s guilds, Anglican mothers’ unions and Presbyterian women’s associations provided fellowship and spiritual support to members while raising funds for church activities. Some organisations supported missionaries (some of whom were women).

Women’s groups were not always welcomed by the ‘fathers and brethren’ of their parent church. The 1896 Otago and Southland Presbyterian Synod, for example, approved the forming of a women’s missionary union by just one vote.

Women’s work

Tasks traditionally associated with women – caring for children, the elderly, the sick and the poor – remained their responsibility. Protestant churchwomen formed welfare groups, and deaconesses, at first trained overseas and then locally, often cared for women and families in difficulty. Many Roman Catholic orders of nuns had specific roles in relation to teaching and caring for the sick or the poor.

These activities were overseen by men. Welfare groups had male advisory boards, and when their activities were reported to official meetings of the church, it was a man who spoke. Orders of nuns were under the guidance of priests, and like the welfare groups, their activities were spoken about by priests.

Out on her own

Some women worked well outside their accepted role. Often alone and on foot, Mother Mary Joseph Aubert travelled in Hawke’s Bay in the 1860s, healing and spreading the word of God. Far beyond the reach of priests, Aubert was determined to rely on her own judgement.

Speaking rights

From the 1890s women in mainstream Protestant denominations pressed for the right to speak about their activities to church gatherings. By the late 1930s all the churches involved had agreed to this.

For many women churchgoers in the 19th century, religion, political involvement and action against the evils of alcohol were closely related to their Christian beliefs. Many women in the Baptist, Methodist and Congregational churches became involved in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the 1880s and 1890s. They campaigned against the sale of alcohol and in favour of women’s right to vote and a range of social welfare reforms, including women’s access to education and paid work. For these women, Christian belief involved addressing issues relating to poverty, prostitution and family welfare.

Women as ministers and priests

The ordination of women as ministers and priests has been, and in some churches remains, particularly controversial. Actively debated from the mid-20th century, it was accepted by the Congregational, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Anglican churches, and the Associated Churches of Christ, between 1951 and 1977. The first woman to be ordained as a minister in the Methodist Church was Phyllis Guthardt in 1959. It was not until 1990 that a woman, Penny Jamieson, was consecrated as a bishop within the Anglican Church. Within the Roman Catholic Church, women remained excluded from the priesthood in the 21st century.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Anne Else, 'Gender inequalities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 September 2021)

He kōrero nā Anne Else, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 20 Jun 2018