Prue Hyman weighs in on gender pay gap and unpaid women's labour in Hopes Dashed? The Economics of Gender Inequality

"The highest-paid 10 per cent of women in graduate trainee positions receive at least A$81,000 in base salary, whereas ...
ANDREW DYSON/FAIRFAX MEDIA

"The highest-paid 10 per cent of women in graduate trainee positions receive at least A$81,000 in base salary, whereas the highest-paid 10 per cent of male graduate trainees took home at least A$88,000 – this equates to a pay gap of 8.0 per cent," the report said.

Wellington economist Prue Hyman has written a book in which she discusses economic issues women face today. Reporter Britt Mann asked her some pressing questions. 

You've written something of a "state of the nation" report on how women are valued in the paid and unpaid labour forces in NZ since 1994. What are the main positive and negative developments?

The positive change is the fact that women are doing very well in the education system. The so-called human capital - what people bring to the labour force as women - has gone up substantially, and that has helped increase their wages because more of them are in the labour force, there are more women being promoted and so on.

Prue Hyman is a New Zealand feminist economist.
MAARTEN HOLL/STUFF

Prue Hyman is a New Zealand feminist economist.

Although that's positive, it hasn't resulted in very much improvement in the gender pay gap overall. Women at the bottom don't fare particularly well and women at the top don't do that well either. They still lag behind in their rewards - they get promoted less often. We thought we'd ticked it off - we had a female prime minister and governor general and head of the telecom and all that. Most of them have been replaced by men. The glass ceilings are still there. This is heavily linked with the fact women still do most of the unpaid caring and household work and bringing up the kids. They have a juggling act to perform. And are often not valued for the actual skills they acquire during this process.

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What are the main misunderstandings surrounding the wage gap debate?

I think a lot of people think the whole of the difference can be explained by women's caring work and it's simply a matter of choices women make. People aren't aware enough of how choices are not unlimited, choices are not unconstrained. It's really important to be aware of how society constrains your choices.

One of the most challenging things you raise is the idea of unconscious bias - that discrimination doesn't have to be deliberate for it to be real. How might employers and employees address this?

I think it's a very slow process of keeping on talking about it, explaining it, showing that it exists. There has been research done in which you send out the same CVs for a job application with a clearly male or female name, and the men get the jobs to a greater extent. People could hardly believe it. So showing that it's there is a start. Then you've got to devise really good systems in your HR processes to avoid it.

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Recent research shows inequality in pay – weighted in favour of men – cannot explained by differences in education, occupation and industry, or part-time work. Should I be emailing our CEO and asking for an internal investigation?

One of the proposals made over the years - and I think there's a Private Members Bill in the wings at the moment - is that firms over a certain size at least should run gender and preferably ethnicity pay audits to examine their pay structures and try and explain them. That was largely done in the public sector during the last Labour government which did expose substantial differences. It didn't get as far as remedying them unfortunately.

Having women at the top is not the only thing. My nightmare is that we have women in 50 per cent of these top positions and we still have quite a substantial gender/ethnic gap, because differentials are too wide generally and because the work that is seen as "less skilled" but isn't necessarily unskilled in practice, is very undervalued. Women suffer particularly because their types of work, the sorts women tend to specialise in, those skills are undervalued.

It's extremely demoralising - that New Zealand women will, on average, make $600,000 dollars less over a lifetime than men. You discuss legal and political remedies. But most people don't have the money or energy for a lawsuit, and bureaucracy is slow. Is there anything an individual can do to improve her circumstances?

It's easy to blame women for not being assertive enough. There is good evidence that women tend to want to be able to do 95 per cent of a job description before they'll apply for it whereas men will apply for it being able to do 60 per cent of it. Men are more confident, men are more assertive and will go for higher increases and so on. A common reaction to that is to say women should become more like men. I'm not a huge fan of the individualistic solutions of that sort. But obviously if an individual woman wants to benefit herself and feels she's being disadvantaged, she should read those articles, and think about how could be more assertive. But it doesn't always pay off. When men do it, it seems good and when women do it, it's not necessarily seen as good.

You mention women have actually gone backwards on some measures of economic equality. Do you have hope for the future?

At the moment I'm not incredibly optimistic because I think right through the Western world the individualism, self-reliance stuff has taken hold for the last 30 years or so. That depresses me. But I think there is a fight back going on.

What's the main message in your book you'd want people to take away?

The idea that there is no alternative. Question everything.

Hopes Dashed? The Economics of Gender Inequality, by Prue Hyman by BWB Texts, RRP $14.99, is out now.

 - Your Weekend

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