Verity Johnson: Equal Pay? Chill out, have a biscuit

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Kate Sheppard. Photo / Supplied
Kate Sheppard. Photo / Supplied

"How is Lord of the Rings Kiwi? Tolkien's English! None of The Fellowship actors are Kiwis! Most of it's CGIiiiiagghhhhhhhhhh."

That's how far you'll get into an anti-Lord of the Rings rant before something hits you in the face.

When I was becoming a Kiwi, I learned New Zealand's sacred trilogy: Lord of the Rings, the All Blacks, and Marmite. Insult them and it's a ticket to an icy mood and a suggestion of where I should stick my opinion.

I quickly learned not to fight those arguments.

But there is one topic I will endure all groans and flying pens for: women in New Zealand.

I remember asking my history teacher, "Why are we so bad at getting women in business roles?" You'd have thought I'd suggested skinning a kitten.

The entirely male class (the two other girls in the class were away) and my male teacher exploded.

And out came the inevitable response:

"New Zealand is great for women's rights! We gave women the vote first!"

Well, yes. But have you got anything more recent than the 1800s?

In 1893 we gave women the vote. That's awesome. But in 2012 only 9.3 per cent of NZX-listed companies had women directors. Fully 65 per cent of local companies have no female directors on their boards. Kate Sheppard would be a grumpy bunny.

My generation is facing a strange scenario. We've grown up knowing girls are successful in school and uni. We've always been told men and women are equal. And we've seen how angry society gets over comments like those by Employers Association leader Alasdair Thompson in 2011.

So far, the Goddess Greer would be satisfied.

But then we get told that just 5 per cent of New Zealand companies have female CEOs. And that in 2010 only 13 per cent of doctors in surgical scopes were women. Or that in 2012 Statistics NZ said the gender pay gap was the widest it had been in 10 years.

Suddenly, for us girls leaving education for the workforce, being smart and energetic and ambitious seems unimportant. We have boobs. So we get paid less.

We start to feel both angry and disappointed. We thought NZ stood for egalitarianism. We thought we could do anything. But now it looks like we can't.

As a girl with ambition, and the need to fund a kookai habit, I flirted with the idea of a business career. But New Zealand's not presenting an inspiring picture for girls like me.

So what am I supposed to do?

I've had people, normally men, tell me to wait. The job sector will change organically over time. Just be patient, dear.

Well the equal pay bill was in 1960. Women have been waiting half a century.

Are we there yet? No.

And why should I have to wait for my dream job? Why don't I move to Australia where 30 per cent of CEOs are women? Perhaps that's the reason for the brain drain ...

It's true that 120 years ago we stood for women's rights. But have we become complacent?

When I talk to people about it they say something like "it's fine, we had Kate Sheppard, we have the Equal Pay Act, chill out, have a biscuit". We can't just point to the past and say yep, we're an egalitarian society. Don't we have to keep proving we stand up for women?

Take this week's speech by Malala Yousafzai - her first public speech since her botched assassination by the Taleban. New Zealand's reaction was a smattering of press coverage. Now we're talking about what we did on Waitangi Day.

Are we still the same country that led the world in the female rights fight?

Because if we were, surely we should be donating to Malala's fund, holding vigils, writing songs, and creating awards for girls like her? Like they're doing in Dublin, India, Nepal, England...

I doubt anyone my age knows who this girl is.

I didn't until I accidentally clicked on an article about her while stalking Karl Urban on Google. I didn't know she was fighting for the right to female education. I didn't know she was shot. I didn't know that she is 15.

And if we are the same revolutionary country, shouldn't we be supporting both heroes like Malala, and everyday girls like me and my girlfriends? All we want to do is make something of our lives.

New Zealand can do better than this. We did it before, we can do it again.

But we have a lot of work to do.

After all, I was told at school that I can't have a career and a family - private school was a good investment mum, eh?

Verity Johnson is an Auckland student.

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