The eighth of this month was International Women's Day - and appropriately enough it saw the role of women in our society making the headlines.

Sadly, those headlines highlighted again the way that women are treated in a male-dominated society - less a matter of celebration than of shame.

First, we learned that the perennial and apparently immutable gap between men's and women's pay rates - so that men are paid more than women for doing exactly the same job - is not attributable to inherent gender differences in capability or to the varying roles that men and women fulfil in society but is primarily due to the attitudes of those who determine pay rates - and guess who has the most influence over that issue?

Women are paid less than men, in other words, because men - who predominate in positions of responsibility and constitute a sort of permanent oligarchy - decide that it should be so. As with so many issues of discrimination, it resolves itself into a matter of attitude.


The pay gap of course reflects the wider scene in which women are constantly put down and treated with scant respect. In the same week, we (or most of us) were shocked at the Facebook boasts of Wellington schoolboys that they had raped unconscious young women, and at the sexual harassment of women teachers by another (and younger) group of schoolboys, also from Wellington.

That was followed by the findings of research into the impact of pornography on those (not always, but predominantly male) who watch it. Kiwis, it seems, are among the world's most avid consumers of pornography; and what the research showed was that it can cause psychological and emotional harm and make it more difficult for consumers to build full and respectful relationships with the opposite sex.

To complete a picture that is far from reassuring, we also learned that the legislation on domestic violence will be amended to provide paid leave to women whose employment is interrupted by injury suffered as a result of domestic violence - a commendable reform in itself, but disturbing evidence of how prevalent domestic violence has become.

These reports are worrying enough indicators of how women are treated in New Zealand - particularly given our somewhat self-satisfied assumption, on the basis of our pioneering history in extending the franchise to women voters, that our society is one in which women are treated as fully equal citizens.

But what is also worrying is that, even when we make an effort to redress the wrongs suffered by women, we still cannot shake off the sexist assumptions on the basis of which that effort is made.

The pay gap, attitudes to rape, the popularity of pornography, the prevalence of domestic violence, the unconscious assumption of male superiority, all go to show how deeply entrenched are sexist attitudes. It's surely time that all you men who profess to love and respect your mothers, wives, daughters and sisters stepped up to the plate and not only insisted on change but made yourselves part of it as well.

Bryan Gould is a former British MP and Waikato University vice-chancellor. He writes an occasional column on current events.