Thanks to historic and current differences in pay between men and women, women are often left wondering whether they're being paid the same as the men around them.

Pay equity has received a lot of airtime in recent years and refers to the fact that many female workers are in occupations that tend to be paid less than traditional male occupations, even where the level of work they do is equivalent.

Gender equality is a different issue — female employees in the same occupations being paid less than their male counterparts. This should be covered by the Equal Pay Act, which first came into force in 1972.

Although the gender pay gap is often discounted by many, the Ministry for Women quantified the gender pay gap in a report last year. The pay gap sits at about 12 per cent, according to the research. In the past, educational differences were a key contributor to explaining gender pay disparities. However, by the middle of this decade, women outstripped their male counterparts at almost all educational attainment levels.

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One issue relates to women being paid less for doing the same job. A related gender equality issue is men being promoted ahead of women of equal calibre. Both happen, says Annie Newman, national director of campaigning at E tū.

The trouble is there is very little transparency of pay in New Zealand. Most workers have no idea how much the person sitting in the next desk is earning. It's often taboo to ask and/or employers frown on it.

"It can happen to anyone at any income level," says Newman. "Just recently we had three security guards who were all women. They asked [their employer] for a site allowance. The employer said they don't give site allowances." But when the female security guards talked to their male counterparts they found that the latter were all paid a site allowance. Only then did the female employees feel they had strong enough grounds to address the gender imbalance in their pay.

Asking whether the men around you are earning more than you is a fair question, says Newman. "This is an issue of systemic, structural discrimination."

Where there is transparency, says Newman, employees can ask what other people in their industry or workplace are earning. "Suddenly the light shining on that pay changes the behaviour of the people setting those wages."

Diversity Works New Zealand chief executive Rachel Hopkins says one of the solutions to the pay gap is getting more men engaged in gender equity. We need men to understand the reality of the statistics and that gender equity in the workplace has positive business benefits.

Her advice to women is to arm themselves with the facts:

●Ask whether there is a gender pay gap in the organisation and what strategies are in place to reduce it

●Ask what the last person doing the role earned

●Ask for what you are worth and negotiate to get it.

Women also need to make sure they are not "discounting themselves" in return for flexibility in the workplace, Hopkins says.

"Flexibility is a two-way street. An employer gets access to the talent they need and employees have an element of control over the way they put the different parts of their lives together."

Kim Campbell, chief executive of the Employers and Manufacturers Association, says we should no longer be having this conversation. "Whether you are a man, woman, gay, black, white or transgender", there should not be discrimination on pay.

Campbell recommends that anyone concerned about earning less than workers of other genders should ask the question of the employer. Another option if that doesn't work is to contact the Labour Department and lay a complaint.

The individualisation of pay rates has been disempowering for employees faced with questions about whether they are being paid at the same rate as others around them, says Newman. The gender pay gap is a very strong argument in favour of collective employment agreements, she says. A collective employment agreement is the formal employment agreement ratified and signed after collective bargaining.

"When rates of pay are secret, people don't want the conflict involved in finding out what their colleagues' pay rates are. Getting out and talking about it becomes socialised (in the industry or organisation) is another way."

Newman has seen instances where employees put notices up at work to get the conversation rolling so that the organisation starts talking about it as an issue. "It becomes part of the language of the workplace. But it is a very difficult thing to do."

The problem is that most employees are dependent on their employers for a job and aren't willing to take that step.

What's more, most don't negotiate their pay when applying for a job. "Most workers start their job on the basis of what is offered, not negotiated. If there is no conversation about negotiation, then there is not going to be a conversation about equity or fairness."