Monday, November 08, 2010

Women going nowhere under National

Every two years, the Human Rights Commission has just publishes a New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation, tracking the participation of women across the public and private sector. Its a useful tool to tracking gender inequality in our society, allowing us to identify sectors with persistent problems and persistent discrimination, as well as see where things are improving. They've just released the latest edition [PDF], and it paints a dismal picture. In most areas, there has been no progress. And in some, things have actually gotten worse.

The most surprising area is the public service. They've been working on eliminating gender discrimination since the Government Service Equal Pay Act was passed back in 1960, and you'd expect them to be leading the way. But what the report shows is that the proportion of female chief executives has fallen in the past two years, while the public sector's average 15.4% gender pay gap has remained unchanged. That average statistic hides some truly appalling ones, with 12 departments having a greater than 20% gap, and two - including the Ministry of Education, which has a female CEO, 57% women in senior management, and 81% women across all staff - having more than 30%. The report includes a selection of excuses from the departments, which tend to focus around gender segregation in roles - but no department then seems to ask "OK, so why are our top managers all men, and their PAs all women"?

(Oddly, the SSC, which provided this data, calculates the gender pay gap on average FTE male and female wages, rather than median. This is a bit unusual, and means we can't really compare it to the headline society-wide gap, which uses median hourly earnings).

Meanwhile, beyond the public sector, the proportion of women serving as company directors (another headline statistic) increased marginally, but we still rank well down the table, behind the US, UK, and Australia. At 9.32%, our proportion of female business leadership is half that of Spain and Sweden, and less than a quarter that of Norway. And this matters. Boards without a women's voice make decisions which ignore them, which allows discrimination to fester. The HRC suggests following Australia in some rather mild measures to improve representation, but if we're serious about the problem, then we need to follow Norway and set quotas as a condition of listing. Its not as if there aren't talented women out there to take these roles; the problem is that our business community is run by a cosy little old-boy network which excludes them because they didn't go to the right (boy's) school.

The rest of the report is similarly depressing. There's been no progress in the judiciary, and glacial progress in the police and law firms. The proportion of women elected to local government fell, as did the proportion of women appointed to statutory bodies. In other words, while we have formal, legal equality, in practice we have anything but.

This has to change, and it is the government's job to lead the way and set aggressive policy to ensure that appointments and pay rates are made on merit, not on gender, and to ensure we don't waste the talents and frustrate the dreams of half the population. But National, the representatives of that business old-boy network, are part of the problem, and I don't see them taking serious action any time soon.