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In New Zealand, we are starting to value women’s work fairly. It’s time for the world to follow | World news

The world would stop running were it not for the unpaid and underpaid work undertaken by women. It is past time for our contribution to be recognised, and remunerated fairly. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, we are creating a new process to appropriately value the caring work traditionally undertaken by women.

It started in 2013, when a care and support worker named Kristine Bartlett, supported by her union (E Tū), filed a pay equity claim under the Equal Pay Act 1972. She made the case that the caring work she did was undervalued because it was mainly performed by women. This was compared to work that was male-dominated but required a similar level of skill, effort and responsibilities.

Kristine’s case was upheld and her claim was then extended to the 55,000 workers who also worked in aged care, disability support, and home support. In 2017, these workers saw their pay packets rise from about $16.23 to $23.50 an hour on average. Other women began to ask whether they too were being underpaid. Social workers and education support workers were next to file.

Once the courts maintained the human right for women to be paid fairly and free from discrimination, it became a question of how employees and employers could determine the appropriate rates across a profession, and raise their pay in a sustainable way. It became clear that it would be better to progress future claims using a collective bargaining approach to avoid costly and acrimonious litigation. This meant employees and employers could work together to assess the existence and extent of gender-based undervaluation of work that has predominately been undertaken by women.

Unions, employers, and government have come together to develop a fair and sustainable process to guide pay equity claims in Aotearoa. This process is now being incorporated into the Equal Pay Act. The bargaining model is a way of bringing all those affected together, and allows for reasonable compromise on all sides. This is a significant opportunity for New Zealand to confront the bias that still exists; how we have valued and do value the contribution of women.

It is tempting to think that women being paid fairly is down to individual choices each person makes. That women just need to apply for different jobs, negotiate for higher salaries, or put themselves forward more. But that ignores some of the fundamental reasons the gender pay gap remains so stubbornly high. Addressing pay equity means challenging our deeply ingrained assumptions about the value of different types of work. Female-dominated occupations such as nursing, teaching and caring are indispensable around the world. We must recognise and value their skills and contribution.

The gender pay gap does not affect all women equally. In Aotearoa, Māori and Pasifika women face multiple factors that compound the wage gap. They are often some of the most poorly paid workers in our economy, as well as having their substantial community contributions not recognised. Globally, women of colour, women with disabilities, and older women face the same challenges of multiple levels of discrimination. If we are serious about addressing inequality, we need to be very honest about who is experiencing the biggest barriers, and make it a priority to remove them.

New Zealand has led the world before. We were the first country in the world where women fought for and won the right to vote. Now we are addressing the systemic undervaluation of work that has mostly been done by women. Today, on International Women’s Day, I want more countries to follow our lead and do more to see all women paid fairly. We can end the gender pay gap in our lifetime.

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