New Zealand has its third female prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. We also have a gender pay gap of 9.7 per cent, driven by what research has identified as "unexplained factors".

It's 2017, and gender bias in the workforce is still alive and kicking.

According to the Ministry for Women, these "unexplained factors" are the outworking of an intersection of bias, behaviours and attitudes.

Biases are knee-jerk thought processes around such things as appropriate roles and who should hold authority in a company. Attitudes influence bias: ideas that may seem benign (such as females being suited more to caring professions) lead to concepts around "male" and "female" jobs. And the "female" jobs are inevitably the poorest paid.

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Our behaviour is the result of bias and attitude. And it can lead us down some slippery slopes.

In 2014, YWCA set up an award to recognise companies that are tackling the gender pay gap in a meaningful way. The Equal Pay Awards celebrate business leaders who recognise that the "unexplained factors" at play in the workforce need to be tackled head-on if pay disparity is to be ended.

Craig Davidson is managing director of international engineering firm Aecom. The initiatives his company has put in place around closing the gender pay gap were recognised at the Equal Pay Awards, where it won silver.

Davidson says that he was shocked when a big initiative to analyse and identify issues with pay equality uncovered a significant like for like role pay disparity at Aecom.

"We genuinely believed there was no gender pay gap," he says. "There was definitely no intention of that ever happening."

The analysis proved to be the impetus for some radical changes at Aecom. Over the past three years, the company has set aside a pot of money that is being used to close the wage gap. As of this year there is no like for like gender pay gap in the NZ arm of the company.

Another initiative ensures that Aecom hires 50 per cent female and 50 per cent male graduates.

"This is something we are really excited about," he says.

Unfortunately, there are challenges when it comes to gender equality in the field of engineering and town planning. Only 25 per cent of engineering graduates are women and there is an extremely high attrition rate for women entering the industry.

"There are a lot of reasons for this," Davidson says. "The workplace is extremely male dominated, and a lot of women don't feel comfortable being in such a minority."

Many of those who remain leave to have children — and not many return.

"It's still true that women do the most in terms of childcare. The demands of the job time-wise make it hard for some people to juggle children and their work."

Aecom has started to put in place term-time contracts to encourage women who have left engineering to return. This is open to both men and women, but the main focus is to attract female workers back to the fold.

"The biggest push in the workplace right now is around flexibility," he says.

"All our jobs are advertised as able to be done part time; this enables women with children to come back into the workforce and care for their families as well."

Gail Pacheco is a professor at the School of Economics at AUT, as well as being the director of the NZ Work Research Institute. She was invited by the YWCA to be on the judging panel for the Pay Equity Awards and says they play an important role in promoting the message of pay parity.

"There is a business case for organisations to push for equal pay benefits, including attracting talent by being an employer of choice, improved reputation and retention, increased satisfaction in the workplace and, related to that, increased productivity of the female workforce," she says.

The NZ Work Research Institute, which she directs, was commissioned to undertake the research for Ministry for Women that identified "unexplained factors" as the key reason for pay disparity.

"Approximately 80 per cent of the gap was found to be unexplained — it is difficult to link this with particular reasons, but we speculate that these reasons could include any or all of the following: we have been able to control for level of education, but not subject of degree, unconscious bias, discrimination, and different preference with regard to non-pecuniary aspects of the job," she explains.

Troublingly, the higher up the pay scale they got, the higher the level of wage disparity.

"The gap goes from being zero and insignificant at the bottom of the wage distribution to being about 20 per cent at the top end."

After the research was conducted, Ministry for Women developed a booklet that contained seven actions employers could take to address pay disparity in their workplaces.

"These include leading from the top, making a plan, analysing your organisation's data, understanding and being aware of different forms of bias (including unconscious bias)," she says.

This is available for download on the Ministry for Women's website, women.govt.nz.