• Judy McGregor is a professor at AUT, a former Human Rights Commissioner and a former newspaper editor.

Equal pay will be a defining election issue for thousands of female voters on September 23.

The enduring gender pay gap of 12 per cent, which worsens by age, ethnicity and occupational sector, affects nearly all working women. It binds in discontent low-paid women and female professionals.

Female engineers, accountants, lawyers and journalists often start on lower pay rates, do not receive equal pay over their working lives, and have no way of forcing transparency of pay inequality.

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Their lower-paid sisters in female dominated industries in health, education, caring, clerical and retail are worse off. First, they are poorly paid, many on a minimum wage of $15.75 an hour that Winston Peters believes is unacceptable for those in "struggle street".

If the Government has its way with the proposed pay equity bill, women such as education support and mental health workers will have to endure a legislative steeplechase of higher and higher and wider and wider brush fences to achieve settlements.

Government spin has promoted the unbridled generosity of Health Minister Jonathan Coleman in the $2.2. billion settlement for aged-care workers. He described addressing the under"valuation of aged care as a "historic moment". But almost as dramatically the National-led Government has abruptly slammed the door on mental health workers in a revealing show of indifference to the very human rights it had so recently embraced.

Kristine Bartlett, the face of the aged-care case, feels betrayed and states the Government has reneged on the initial agreement and the good work done by the Joint Working Group of employers, unions and the Government. Mental health workers were part way through a claim and suspended it in expectation of benefiting when the aged-care deal was agreed.

Now they are faced with having to use the new Pay Equity Bill, which is structurally flawed, overly restrictive for claimants and a potent symbol of women's anger.

If it is all about politics and not lipstick, what are women's choices at the polls?

At a recent Equal Pay rally in Auckland, Jacinda Ardern, Labour, promised that the mental health workers would not be forgotten. The proposed bill would be scrapped and redrafted. The Future of Work initiative also promises a Pay and Employment Equity Unit.

Jan Logie, Green Party, said it would make public sector CEOs responsible for pay equity of core Government departments within the first term.

Jo Goodhew, National, said the private sector also had to do better. The State Services Commission was asking public service organisations to report on how they would fix the gender pay gap in four years.

Tracey Martin, NZ First, said the party was committed to dumping the proposed bill, amending the 1972 act and following the working group's principles rather than "throwing the baby out with the bath water".

The Maori Party also supported rewriting the proposed bill and voted against it at first reading in Parliament.

Equal pay is a signature issue of political trust this election.