International Women’s Day
8 March 2013
Khartoum Place, Auckland
Greetings every one
International Women’s Day is special because on this day we celebrate, with woman around the world, progress in working women’s lives.
We also focus on what still needs to be done.
For New Zealand women, we can also mark that this is the 120th year since women led the world in winning the female franchise. Working women joined in that fight, especially the Tailoresses Union.
Today we certainly can celebrate women’s progress.
When I became involved first in women’s issues, in 1966, a group of us mothers either studying or teaching at Auckland University formed the Student and Staff Nursery Society to set up a crèche.
At the time, nearly 50 years ago, the view of the University Council was that you were either a mother or you accessed higher education, but you could not do both. There was only one woman on the Council, Dame Dorothy Wilson, and she completely supported us, but otherwise we were treated as a joke.
The student president was terrified of pregnant women, which many of us were, and all we got from them was some jiff and toilet paper.
So, like women do, we did it ourselves, found our premises, employed a crèche supervisor, and off we went. This was the first in the country and it spread.
Now students at tertiary education expect to have day care provided by the institutes they are at – it is thoroughly bedded in as part of the services provided at university and technical colleges.
Back when we started Broadsheet feminist magazine, in 1972, there were all sorts of prohibitions on working women that are now gone.
Night work was banned in many industries. Women could not be paid fire fighters and ambulance personnel. Women could not work in many parts of freezing works. Many trade training courses were not open to women. Women who dared to enter engineering school got jeered at and when Sue Kedgeley went and spoke to them, she got condoms thrown at her.
The first submission I ever made was to the Select Committee on Women’s Rights, in 1974, and my submission for Auckland Women’s Liberation was to analyse jobs vacant advertisements in daily papers.
It is quite astonishing to go back and see just how discriminatory and stereotyped these vacancy ads were then.
Virtually every ad specified whether it was for a man or woman, as well as specifying age, and so on.
This kind of discrimination was outlawed by the Human Rights Act 1977, an outcome of the Select Committee on Women’s Rights, so that employment practices had to be gender neutral.
Those kind of restrictions have gone. We now have some degree of paid maternity leave, indeed there is workplace and social pressure on women to get back to work after having a child, which to my mind is rather disempowering and we have lost a degree of choice about what women do. In fact, women’s role in early child rearing has become rather invisible, something she must slot in around paid work, rather than the workplace changing to recognise parental roles in child rearing.
For professional women, we still have a long way to go– for example, their representation as partners in firms and directors on boards. Generally, women can achieve seniority on the basis of their own abilities more easily in the public sector than the private sector, for example, the new CEO and most of the senior management positions in Auckland DHB are women, and in the Auckland Council many tier two and tier three managers are women.
In the private sector, however, cultural practices that exclude women are quite entrenched and male privilege is not easily given up.
But, one of the precepts of the women’s movement was that you measure social progress by the women at the bottom of society, rather than the highflyers.
And that’s where we are really stalled. There are too many women in low-paid work, too many working part-time or in casual work, who really want a secure full time job. At this time when NZ is not economically buoyant – and I believe what we have now is the new normal – women at both end points of their working lives are suffering.
Young school leavers are finding it hard to get into jobs, and women towards the end of their working lives, the over 50s, who often have patched together working lives around the needs of their families, are often unemployed or underemployed, and face retirement financially very ill prepared.
Right from the beginning of women’s liberation we knew that women’s work was the bedrock of improving women’s status. Access to paid work, and a decent wage, were fundamental to women’s control over their own lives, their independence, and their freedom.
Women can only construct the lives they want if they have money, they can only be adequately housed if they have the funds, they can only free themselves of oppressive domestic situations be it the family of their birth or violent men in their lives if they have money, they can only adequately care for themselves and their children with earnings. It is really that basic.
So women need work, and they need fairly paid work. The fact is that there is an entrenched gender pay gap that is proving intransigent despite the efforts of organised women, unions and individual women.
Part of the reason for this, is that when it comes to the worst paid jobs, women are disproportionately in them.
Last year the Human Rights Commission released Caring Counts, a report led by Judy McGregor into care givers in aged residential care and home based
care. There are 48,000 NZers in these jobs, the vast proportion of them women.
These jobs are vital and require complex skills. They entail high levels of responsibility such as often working without qualified nurses as back-up, giving medication and providing treatment and intimate personal care.
The HRC study found the average wage for a caregiver was $14.37, not far above the minimum wage. If you compare this with maintenance staff and gardeners – mostly male – who get $16.56 an hour (still poorly paid), you can only conclude that gender discrimination is still alive and well. As one informant said:
“Changing a light bulb or pulling weeds is paid at a higher rate than caring for old people”.
Caregivers are paid less than gas station attendants, shelf stackers, prison officers, rubbish collectors, kiwi fruit pruners and many many others.
This shockingly low pay for caregivers means that many are forced to take two jobs. Often two full-time jobs, so that a caregiver will do two full 8 hour shifts in 2 different rest homes to try and make ends meet.
It is extremely hard for caregivers to study and gain more qualifications, and they are often not supported to do so by their employers.
A lot of residential care caregivers are immigrants and do not have English as a first language. Many have only Level 1 qualifications.
Home care workers suffer other forms of unfairness. They face changing and uncertain hours of work.
Many are not paid for travel time between placements as if it were not work. They must provide their own cars but many are not paid for travel costs, and if they are, it is well below public service payments.
We have privatised the care of older people even though it is paid for by the state, but then we have consigned workers to pay and conditions that are well below those of their counterparts in public hospitals.
I’ve used this as an example as it so clearly shows the dire situation of women on the lowest wages, in an area which heavily relies on women’s labour. The answer is for the Government to fund this care to a greater level and to require increases in funding to be passed on in people’s pay, not go into rest home profits.
I want to finish by talking about what I think are the biggest obstacles to women’s progress and employment equity. I’m going to talk quite widely here because I think the issues are broad and complex.
Firstly, I am appalled at the resurgence of stereotyping of young girls. In women’s liberation we fought to get rid of sexist children’s books, stereotyped toys, clothing, gendered activities. We wanted girls to read about strong role models, to reject barbies and toy stoves, to wear clothes that let them run and climb and get dirty, to take up games that were physically challenging and healthy.
While the battle with books was largely won, on the other fronts there is huge slippage. Things like fairy shops, ubiquitous pink, and the encouragement of girls to primp and prance, to adopt baby voices, and to aspire to makeup and ear piercing before they have even got their adult teeth, will chain our girls to lowly roles. It is not harmless fun – it is training to be subservient. We need strong assertive young woman not fairy princesses entering the workforce.
The second obstacle is violence against women, in the form of women battering in relationships and sexual violence.
While support services for battered and violated women have improved – though we have to keep fighting for even the basics like funding over and over again – the level of violence women experience in New Zealand is entrenched.
I believe it is encouraged by media, social media and stereotypes of toughness and manliness amongst men that are damaging to women. Our media normalises and even glorifies violence and aggression in human relationships, between men and men, and of men against women.
We know from work done some years ago by the Women’s Ministry that violence is a huge obstacle to women’s employment, with battered women often finding it hard to be a regular, reliable employee, and violent partners
deliberately sabotaging their partners performance and attendance in the workplace. Until we stop men’s violence, many women will find it impossible to be full participants in the workforce.
The third obstacle is the lack of an outspoken, out there, in your face, women’s movement. When I got involved more than 40 years ago, there was a myriad of women’s organisation from the more conservative to the zap action groups and everything in between.
And there were strong women’s lobbies within the union movement, such as Feminist Teachers and the Working Women’s Council.
Some of the fights women took through these groups have now been picked up by unions and other movements, but the women’s voice is muted and so for many women facing workplace inequity, it is a lonely and personal fight.
But the problems I’m talking about are not personal. They are the result of entrenched, systemic discrimination against women, and they can only be remedied by organised push-back and demands from women as a group.
Consequently, on this Working Women’s Day, I’d like to thank Zonta, for keeping the flame burning, for organising this day, and for highlighting the gains we’ve made, but also looking at how far working women still have to go.