Friday, May 15, 2009

Patriarchal Equilibrium - 1, Pay Equity - 0

These are darkening days for the female population of New Zealand. This week, the news came out that the Department of Labour’s Pay and Employment Equity Unit has been ‘disestablished’ (that’s bureaucratic weasel-speak for binned). Earlier this year, a couple of its major investigations were scrapped based on a specious argument for ‘pay restraint’ – that is to say, the government simply can’t afford to redress gender-based pay imbalances. Sadly, the move has come as no great surprise to me. The centre-right National government elected last November has been ‘reprioritising’ government spending, and using the convenient excuse of the global financial crisis to gut programmes aimed at combating discrimination and promoting social justice. It's par for the course. The last time a National government was elected, back in 1990, its first move was to repeal the Employment Equity Act.

There was an excellent and wide-ranging roundtable across several history blogs back in March, where feminist scholars discussed historian Judith M. Bennett’s book History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. Bennett specialises in the history of non-elite women in late medieval/early modern England. Her thesis in History Matters is that when a long-term perspective is applied to the historical analysis of women’s and men’s status in society (legal rights, economic conditions and so on), it becomes clear that what she terms "patriarchal equilibrium" is at work. So while conditions for women have improved over the centuries, those for men have also improved, with the result that in absolute terms, men preserve their privileged position in society. Bennett uses the example of wage rates, pointing out that the gap between what men and women earn for th
e same types of work hasn’t really closed much at all since the later Middle Ages. It has drifted up and down a bit, but over the long term, women have consistently earned between about 50 and 80 percent of what men earn for the same work.

So check this out: According to recent statistics reported by the Department of Labour, New
Zealand women earn 78.9% of men’s average weekly earnings, and 86.7% of men’s average hourly earnings. The graph at right, from Statistics New Zealand, shows patriarchal equilibrium in action*. Over the last few years, men and women both benefited from the country’s economic boom and hourly rates have climbed, but as you can clearly see, the gap between women’s wages and men’s wages has nonetheless remained pretty constant. Now that the boom times are over, there is going to be additional pressure on women’s lower wages. At the same time, the message coming loud and clear from the National government (all naturally rolling in fat pay packets themselves) is that as a nation, pay equity is ‘a luxury we can’t afford’. With the dissolution of the Pay and Employment Equity Unit, those at the bottom of the privilege pile are once again being asked to sacrifice themselves at the altar of economic best interests.

Once upon a time, we Kiwis could be proud of our progressive stance on women’s rights. In 1893, New Zealand became the first self-governing nation in which women won the fight for full suffrage. We’ve had two women Prime Ministers and women have held the posts of chief justice, attorney general and governor-general. But the evidence of a handful of women in senior leadership positions doesn’t nullify the argument that there are still systemic gender-based inequities in our society – although that is what National’s Justice Minister Simon Power tried to suggest this week in the face of criticism from the UN Human Rights Committee.

For those of us who’ve been around the block more than a few times and who have taken to the streets in the past to protest discrimination of all kinds, the disbanding of the Pay and Employment Equity Unit feels like the first shot across the bows. I’m fully expecting to see further retroactive moves. My guess? Restricting access to abortion will soon be back on the agenda in the interests of ‘protecting family values’, while reducing the Domestic Purposes Benefit (for single parents, most of whom are women) and/or tightening the eligibility criteria will be another ideological move made in the guise of ‘reducing government spending in these tough economic times’.

I wonder what the situation is like in other countries. Are you seeing similar retrenchments being made in anti-discrimination and broadly social justice-based programmes under cover of reining in spending in a screwed economy? And for any New Zealanders reading, am I on the money here? If so, what do you think will be next in National’s firing line?

* For more on New Zealand, check out this paper presented at the 2001 Women’s Studies Association Conference. Amongst other things, the authors discuss statistics showing continued under-representation and under-valuing of women in academia and the public sector.

No comments: