Many of us have become inured to reports from around the world of terrible crimes against women - not just acts of violence against individuals but damaging and degrading actions against women in general which seem to be expressions of belief systems, cultural or religious, that thankfully have no place in our society.

New Zealand has long enjoyed a reputation, since we pioneered full voting rights for women, as a country where women have equal rights and are full members of society. But if we are to retain that reputation, we need to be vigilant.

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We should acknowledge, for example, our distressing record on domestic violence.

And we should understand, too, that for every instance of physical or sexual abuse that is reported, there will be others that are not reported - cases of women damaged, often psychologically, trapped in abusive relationships, too frightened and beaten down to do anything about it.

We remain, in other words, a society that fails in important respects to treat women properly.

Discrimination against women, here as elsewhere, remains the most pervasive and significant manifestation of unfair treatment to be found worldwide. One aspect of that unfair treatment is increasingly identified, but not acted on.

Our failure to pay women at the same rate as we pay men may not seem comparable to the serious abuses women suffer in other respects, but it is nevertheless an expression of a deeply entrenched attitude in our society.

The struggle for equal pay will be seen one day as equivalent to the battle for women's suffrage. In the meantime, however, it remains evidence of a refusal to acknowledge that women have the same rights as men, or that a contribution made by a woman is worth as much as the same contribution made by a man.

Women's pay in New Zealand is still on average substantially below that of men; and, as a recent survey has revealed, that is as true in the public sector as it is in the wider economy, with the worst public sector offenders in the State Services Commission and the Crown Law Office maintaining a gap as high as 39 per cent.

A landmark victory was, however, recently achieved in the Court of Appeal. A care worker, Kristine Bartlett, sued her employers, Terranova, for their failure to pay her at the rate that a man would receive for work requiring a similar level of skill and commitment.

The employers offered a familiar defence. The low rate paid to Ms Bartlett was not, they said, because she was a woman but was because the job itself commanded only a low rate of pay.

The fact that most of those paid at that low rate were women was purely coincidental; it was not their fault that women happened to choose low-paid jobs.

The Employment Court would have none of that argument, and the Court of Appeal agreed. They were clear that the job of a carer required a level of skill and commitment, and provided an economic and social value, that were comparable to other jobs that were mainly performed by men.

They found that Ms Bartlett's pay, and that of her co-workers, male or female, was low because the work was mainly done by women, and not because it was of intrinsically lower value than jobs done mainly by men.

Herald Insights: Do you get paid fairly? Explore the gender pay gap in your occupation and see the difference that adds up to over a year.

The principle of fair remuneration and equal pay as defined in the Equal Pay Act 1972 required, they said, that there should be the same pay for jobs of the same value.

Ms Bartlett's pay was lower than it should be, in other words, because her job was wrongly undervalued on the basis that it was mainly done by women.

The decision was of course welcomed by care workers and their union, but was condemned by employers and business on the familiar ground that an increase in pay as required by the Court of Appeal's interpretation of the meaning of equal pay could not be afforded. A similar objection was made to the abolition of slavery.

But the really interesting response came from the Government. It has, of course, a vested interest, since the wages paid by rest home operators are funded by government grant.

The Government's constant drive to cut public spending means the grant is kept as low as possible. A move to equal pay as defined by the Court of Appeal would not be welcome.

So, the Government was unwilling to entrust the issue further to the courts. A working party was set up to consider how policy on equal pay should be interpreted - and presumably how the Court of Appeal decision could be watered down. It will report next month.

The working party comprises four government appointees, four business representatives, and six trade union representatives, thereby providing an inbuilt 8-6 majority for limiting the effect of the Court of Appeal decision.

There are no prizes for guessing what the outcome will be. We are still a long way, in other words, from achieving anything that can really be called equal pay.

Bryan Gould is a former UK Labour MP and former vice-chancellor of Waikato University.
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