Women in the workplace: Still unequal after all these years?

Challenging inequality and discrimination in the workplace was the focus of Dr Amanda Reilly’s presentation to a ‘Transforming Workplace Relations’ seminar.

Living Wage image by ©Fairfax
Dr Amanda Reilly is "a bit tired" of the quotas for women on boards conversation and would like to see us "discuss having quotas for women who are at the bottom of the labour market". ©Fairfax

Dr Amanda Reilly, a senior lecturer at Victoria Business School, has sat through many presentations about how there should be quotas for women on boards.

"And I can see there’s some logic in that. I think it can change the norm of how we view a leader," Reilly told a packed lecture theatre of employment relations specialists and practitioners at Victoria Business School for the latest in the University’s Centre for Labour, Employment and Work (CLEW) Seminar Series.

But she is "a bit tired of that conversation" and would like to see us "discuss having quotas for women who are at the bottom of the labour market".

The subject of the CLEW seminar was ‘Transforming workplace relations – learning from the past and looking to the future’ and, among other speakers, it featured presentations by contributors to the Victoria University Press book Transforming Workplace Relations in New Zealand 1976–2016, co-edited by Professor Gordon Anderson from the University’s Faculty of Law.

The seminar included an opening address by Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety Iain Lees-Galloway and was chaired by Graeme Colgan, former Chief Judge of the Employment Court.

Reilly’s presentation drew on the chapter ‘Women in the Workplace: Still Unequal After All These Years?’ she co-wrote with Professor Annick Masselot from the University of Canterbury.

“You will notice there’s a question mark there,” said Reilly. “I can answer that question right in my first opening comments: yes, women are still unequal in the workforce. So if you ever had any doubts about that …”

Some women are more unequal than others

And some women are more unequal than others, she said.

"If you look at the Human Rights Commission, there are indicators of inequality and it’s very clear from those that overall men do better than women in the workplace. Some ethnicities do worse than others and within those ethnicities the women within them will do worse than the men."

New Zealand needs to better address the impact of discrimination where multiple causes intersect, said Reilly.

Referring to the work done by lawyer Mai Chen in her book The Diversity Matrix: Updating What Diversity Means for Discrimination Laws in the 21st Century, she said New Zealand jurisprudence is lagging behind other countries, with no high-level cases within either the employment or human rights areas that have dealt with the issue.

"Our law doesn’t specifically preclude those cases coming through but they are simply not being argued," said Reilly.

But it’s not just down to the law, she said. "We can recognise better that the process of intersectional discrimination is occurring and can adjust attitudes and behaviour accordingly perhaps."

If quotas — for example "10 percent of your workplace have to be Māori women" — aren't the way, how about voluntary or even mandatory targets, said Reilly.

"I always enjoy reading the South African Employment Equity Act. It is really, really refreshing to see what can be done if you are in fact serious about investing in equality. That required employers not just in the public sector but in the private sector as well to set targets.”

Mandatory gender equality reporting

Both targets and quotas might be considered a step too far.

"That takes me to my next thing, which perhaps is controversial. This is another thing I think we could be doing and perhaps should be doing. And that is mandatory gender equality reporting. You could include ethnic reporting.

"We really don’t have this in New Zealand and other countries do. I think employers in the United Kingdom and Australia are required to report various indicators about gender equality and so forth. I don’t see why New Zealand employers can’t — why is that impossible?

"Because I don’t think anybody is really thinking, 'I want to discriminate, I have an intention to do that'. So people might go from 'I don’t tend to do this' to thinking it’s not happening.

"A process of reporting forces you to confront what is actually happening, and if that reporting is publicised, it gives civic society, unions, an opportunity to highlight things. And in a worst-case scenario, litigation: it gives fuel to litigation, it means litigators have access to this information.”

If we are aiming for equality in the workplace, we need to change the gender norm around caregiving, said Reilly.

"That’s essentially the idea that women are the ones responsible for doing unpaid care work. Not just babies and children — as the population ages there’s more elder care work that has to be done and I think we have to know and acknowledge if it’s largely women doing that care work at both ends of life."

Shifting workplace norms

For women to compete equally in the workplace, the norm needs to shift, said Reilly.

"How can we shift it? That is a huge conversation and I don’t have the answer. There is one thing I think we can do, going back to the start, and that is paid parental leave for men and partners.

"Australia has two weeks’ designated leave for dads and partners paid at minimum wage. If Australia can do that surely we can? That’s not a cure but it starts to shift the norm. Men, too, have a role to play in doing that care.

"In the Basque Country [in Spain], they have just introduced 18 weeks at full replacement of salary. That’s a lot more generous than two weeks at minimum wage.

"I like to say this just to see people’s reactions: if we really want to shift the gender norm, we could make it compulsory. ‘You can’t make it compulsory, that’s interfering with free choice.’ Actually, in Portugal they have tried to make it compulsory. It’s for a couple of days.

"So that’s an interesting idea and people always say, 'What if men don’t want to take it?' Men do want to take it. The point of making it compulsory is to affect employers."

On sexual harassment, Reilly said the law might need clarifying or people better educated about it, because there are inadequacies in how it is being interpreted.

But organisations "have to take a long hard look at themselves and how they are managing sexual harassment", she said.

She referred to a comment made in an earlier presentation about transforming workplace management more generally, where Associate Professor Jane Bryson from Victoria’s School of Management said: "I think that regulatory change sends an important signal to employers and to workplaces. I think that standards and infrastructure that come about through regulatory change are really important. I think that worker representation is really important.

"But I also think part of the key to change in the workplace is for HR managers to display true moral courage. And that is about trying to influence senior management teams, business philosophies and how things get managed in an organisation."

Reilly also referred to the Catherine Fox book Stop Fixing Women: Why building fairer workplaces is everybody’s business.

Negotiation skills rather than leadership skills

"Her central premise is we really need to stop putting all this energy into sending women off on leadership camps and making women attend workshops about how they have to negotiate harder, all these things that women have to change.

"Her idea is it’s not just women’s job to fight for equality, men need to step up as well. Quite often they are the ones with the power, so why are powerless people being forced to fight the battle?"

When Reilly and Masselot researched their chapter in Transforming Workplace Relations in New Zealand 1976–2016, two women came to the fore: economist and former Victoria academic Prue Hyland, and academic and former politician Professor Margaret Wilson – the latter another speaker at the seminar.

"Their names kept coming up and we kept reading their contributions. That was both inspiring and depressing. It was inspiring because of the quality of their work and my admiration at their resilience, that they had just kept going with these [contributions].

"But it was also profoundly depressing, because all of these issues I have been talking about — they are not new issues. You go back 40 years and those issues are coming up again and again and again.

"So looking to the future, my hope is that in 40 years' time there’s no presentation like this. That we aren't still discussing women being unequal in the workplace."

Transforming Workplace Relations in New Zealand 1976–2016

Transforming Workplace Relations in New Zealand 1976–2016

Published by Victoria University Press, Transforming Workplace Relations in New Zealand 1976–2016 reflects on a turbulent era of New Zealand’s industrial relations.

This collection of essays also speculates on the future of work relationships in a world challenged by newly evolving forms of work and employment. Contributors include both those who lived through the last 40 years as well as those who, in another 40 years, may again look back over a much changed employment landscape.

The book, co-edited by Gordon Anderson, Alan Geare, Earling Rasmussen and Margaret Wilson, marks the 40th anniversary of the inaugural publication in May 1976 of the New Zealand Journal of Industrial Relations.