Deborah Chambers: Simple policy changes could help close pay gap

The ongoing issues for men and women are reflected in the gender pay gap. Photo / Getty Images
The ongoing issues for men and women are reflected in the gender pay gap. Photo / Getty Images

The report in the New Zealand Herald that the pay gap between men and women is the worst it has been in almost a decade, and that the medium wage for men is almost $8000 more than that for women, calls for legislative solutions.

The causes of the pay gap, including women being overlooked for top paying jobs, women being expected to take time out of their careers for children, women being less likely to negotiate and women being simply discriminated against (despite the law), cannot seriously be disputed. Seeking equal pay for jobs that are of equal skills, responsibility and stress is a campaign, which again should not be controversial.

There are some simple policies we could adopt which could help put women on an equal footing and some changes would not cost taxpayers a bean.

Norway has dramatically reduced its gender pay gap with a paternity leave plan that has changed the culture of child rearing. In 1993, it introduced a regulated paternity leave quota, with a twist.

Out of the total paid parental leave a special 10-week quota was allocated for fathers that could not be transferred to mothers. It had to be used or lost.

The quota did more than guarantee fathers time off; it changed their attitudes about gender and child rearing. Norwegians now think it is normal for fathers to spend time with their children.

If women want to have equality in the workplace, we have to share the responsibilities in the home better.

When Norway's policy was introduced, its gender pay gap was about 20 per cent. It has dropped to just 7 per cent.

Also helping to redress the balance is the fact that Norway has highly subsidised daycare with costs capped at around $450 a month for each child. Women know that when they enter motherhood, the barriers to continued employment are low.

It is worth noting that the gender pay gap is lowest in the bottom end of the earnings distribution but wider at the top. The top female earners still make 17 per cent less than their male counterparts, suggesting the continuing existence of the so-called "glass ceiling".

But women in Norway are far better represented in two key areas where Kiwi women lag. In Norway, women occupy 40 per cent of parliamentary seats and 40 per cent of board seats in listed companies. This is directly related to the introduction of the legal requirement in 2006 that both men and women have to make up at least 40 per cent of boards of companies listed on the stock exchange (and a range of other companies).

The tech industry is working hard to tackle discrimination and gender issues in a field so clearly dominated by men.

When Google's Sydney office was initially established, it famously had more people called "Dave" working there than women. Google is taking steps to address that issue, including limiting chances to negotiate salary because they recognise Karen Patterson's point (which is clearly established by research) that women are less likely to negotiate salaries.

Another legislative change which could be made is radical transparency. In the United States, some tech companies are getting rid of the secrecy surrounding pay altogether. If we all know what other members of the team are being paid, it is a lot harder for a firm to undervalue a particular worker.

A US-based software company, Buffer, makes all salaries, from the chief executive down to office staff, publicly available online. Any kind of bias is more likely to be seen and addressed.

Working mothers worried about the future of their children can be heartened at the news that women whose mothers worked outside the home are more likely to have jobs themselves, are more likely to hold supervisory responsibility at those jobs and earn higher wages than women whose mothers stayed home fulltime, according to a comprehensive study at Harvard Business School.

"There are very few things ... that have such a clear message on gender inequality as being raised by a working mother," says Kathleen McGinn, who led the study.

We live in a world where overt discrimination against women and working mothers no longer exists in the way it has for previous generations. The ongoing issues for men and women are reflected in the gender pay gap. The solutions include ensuring that the workplace is more family-friendly, improving the availability and quality of part-time and flexible working and investing in childcare to help individuals achieve a full work-life balance. Legislation can make New Zealand a leader in this area as it proudly has been historically.

Deborah Chambers is a QC.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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