This year has carried hopes of a breakthrough for "pay equity", which means equal pay for women not just with men doing the same work but with men doing different work.

It ought to be possible, the campaign argues, to compare work done predominantly by women with better paid work done predominantly by men, and thus to close the gap in gender earning overall that persists despite the passage of the Equal Pay Act more than 40 years ago.

Two years ago, the Court of Appeal agreed pay comparisons ought to be possible. It ruled the Equal Pay Act applied not just to the same work but to work of comparable worth. But it did not venture to suggest how comparisons might be made, preferring to refer a test case back to the Employment Court for the practicalities to be argued between the aged care industry and the union representing rest home staff. With midwives and other female occupations lining up with similar claims, the Government last year persuaded all sides to form a joint working group to try to establish some guidelines for pay comparisons.

The working group led by Dame Patsy Reddy, since designated the next Governor-General, produced its results last week. It has not been able to resolve very much. It has set down some "principles" to guide negotiations on pay equity claims. The work must be compared with "appropriate comparators". These may include "work which is the same or similar to the work at issue" or "male comparators who perform different work". Well, yes, but what jobs, for example?


Comparisons are nearly always invidious. Argument could go on forever about whether a rest home worker's job was harder, or more stressful or unpleasant than than a prison officer's, for example, or whether a nurse should be paid the same as a policeman, or a midwife deserves the same rates as a GP?

The courts have avoided this sort of exercise and so has the joint working group, declaring it is a task for "good faith" bargaining of specific claims. A second working group is trying the resolve the rest home worker's case but it seems unlikely to produce a template for wider pay comparisons.

The jobs in which women predominate are mostly in the teaching, caring and social services for which the taxpayer meets the bill, either directly or through subsidies and benefits. The Government received the Reddy working group's recommendation nearly three weeks ago, but State Services Minister Paula Bennett and Workplace Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse say they have yet to consider them. Unions involved in the working groups have reserved their option to go back to the Employment Court if no progress can be made. That is where pay equity will probably be decided if the Government now agrees to leave it to direct bargaining.

But even the courts might struggle to make invidious comparisons, especially since the voices of "comparator" occupations have not been heard yet. Linked pay rates would make their wage bargaining harder. The breakthrough still appears a long way off.