John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Hail to the stunningly, confidently feminine

One of the books I gave my mother for Christmas not so long ago was a silly thing entitled Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps. Mum, who these days is active in an organisation asserting the power of women in the Catholic Church, didn't seem to mind but my sister was appalled.

Seriously appalled. I'm not sure why. I think it was one of the those things that if I didn't know it wasn't worth telling me.

There's a generation - mine - that invented sexual equality and cannot believe the battle to change the hearts and minds of men has been won. It is still wary of acknowledging gender distinctions, let alone delighting in them.

Women of my mother's generation, housebound for half their adult lives, absorbed feminism in their maturity. And women of my daughter's generation are freely, gloriously, expressing sexuality again.

They know the opportunities feminism has opened for them and they are stunningly, confidently feminine. They even call themselves chicks and babes, terms that in the revolutionary phase would have had you tied to a tree and stoned.

But in between those generations there are the old revolutionaries, now at the pinnacles of politics, public service and most professions and they are still looking for covert discrimination to conquer.

Their reluctance to recognise some innate differences now distracts them, I think, from the real interests and preferences of women in careers.

They are obsessed, for example, with statistics showing that 30 years after legislating for equal pay, women's average earnings overall have risen to only about 80 per cent of men's and are not catching up.

When that became evident in the late 1980s, agencies such as the Ministry of Women's Affairs decided that society undervalued the work women do.

It concluded, rightly, that equal pay within occupations would never improve the statistics so long as most women went into a narrow range of jobs, notably nursing, teaching, retail and clerical work.

But the solution proposed was bizarre for its time, the late 1980s, when the economy was being rendered more responsive to supply and demand.

Pay equity, as the solution was called, would link the wages of nurses, secretaries and the like to rates prevailing in predominantly male work of "comparable worth".

Though nobody quite knew how disparate jobs could be compared, token legislation was passed in the dying days of the last Labour Government. It was quickly repealed by National and nothing more was heard of the subject until last month.

In her final act as Minister of Women's Affairs, Laila Harre released a discussion paper called Next Steps to Pay Equity. It is as bizarre as ever.

The ministry has never worked out why predominantly female occupations are relatively lowly paid, although the answer stares out from its own data. The reason is not that "society" undervalues anything, it is the old story of supply and demand. Since the 1970s there has been a vastly greater supply of applicants for the work women want.

The solution is not to restore a system of fixed relative wage rates - the teachers' parity bugbear writ large - but to encourage women into a wider range of careers.

The Equal Employment Opportunities Trust has been trying to do exactly that, but the ministry is unimpressed. The paper states that "for women's occupational distribution to be the same as men's, about 65 per cent of women would need to change jobs", which tells you how narrow women's choices have been.

"Despite present EEO policies," the ministry says, "it could take 75 years before occupational differences between men and women disappeared." It claims, quite wrongly, that EEO efforts "do not directly address why the kinds of work currently done predominantly by women attract lower pay on average than the kinds of work done by men."

So why does the ministry think it happens? "Structural discrimination," it says. It does not elaborate. Presumably it suspects a plot between wage negotiators in different sectors to penalise those sectors that women prefer.

The old revolutionaries harbour an equally mysterious explanation for that fact that, 30 years after the breakthrough, not nearly enough of their contemporaries have joined them on the high rungs of occupational ladders.

The explanation? The "glass ceiling". What else could it be? Women have had every encouragement - role models, affirmative action programmes, informal but obvious quotas in the public service and many professions.

The private sector, through the Institute of Directors, ensures an equal number of each gender on its annual courses in board directing and corporate governance.

Education, which struggles to entice more men into primary teaching, also struggles to entice women to apply for principals' positions. Even universities, fountains of feminism, agonise often that the proportion of female staff declines at higher levels.

If higher pay, education and equal opportunity laws cannot entice many women into other occupations for another 75 years, it might be time to suggest something else is at work.

Could it be - dare I say it? - that men's and women's attitudes to employment, careers, promotion and pay are different?

Work means far too much to men. It is much more than a pay packet for most of us, much more than a means to enjoy leisure time. It is our identity, self-respect, our sense of social worth. Most of us are, I'm afraid, what we do.

It is the first question we want to ask when we meet. "Whadayado?"

When men resign from demanding jobs saying they want to spend more time with their family, they're lying.

I don't know whether women are like that, and feminist research does not want to tell me.

In 1993, the Suffrage Centennial Year Trust led by Sonja Davies put some of its public money into a study of women in part-time work. The researchers clearly believed these women were helpless victims of the rampant free market and the newly passed Employment Contracts Act.

They duly received that view from their chosen "key informants" - union officials and academic experts they interviewed for "context".

Unfortunately for their purpose, they'd also proposed to talk to groups of women actually working part time in health, education, retailing and service sectors.

And just under three-quarters of those women said they preferred to work part-time. The reasons they gave had to do with energy, time, stress, childcare, study and other commitments.

You had to read some way into the published report to discover this. The press release and Sonja Davies' preface both presented the plight of women in part-time work as one of enforced misery.

The sad thing about feminism that is locked in a 1970s pursuit of statistical equality is that it forces women into male attitudes to work.

That is sad for women, not for me. I love working with women. I wish more of them would climb the tree. But I suspect their attitude to work and life is immeasurably healthier than mine.

nzherald.co.nz/nzwomen

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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