Views My Own

Pay Equity in New Zealand is a Race Issue, Not Just a Gender Issue

Pākehā women earn more than Māori, Pasifika and Asian men. This International Women's Day it's time to change the way we talk about the pay gap.
March 8, 2017, 3:45am

(Image via Flickr)

Statistics released ahead of International Womens Day this week confirm the wage gap disparity between men and women. The report, commissioned by the Ministry for Women, submits the gender wage gap has plateaued at 12 percent since 2002, despite heavy campaigning for equality in the workplace. Traditionally the campaign for equal pay has been touted as a staple issue for feminism, a denial of equal access to opportunities reserved exclusively for men. But prioritising sexism in the workplace has meant racial disparities have been ignored, morphing into a redundant 'women vs men', 'us vs them' dialogue.


Pākehā women earn between $3 and $6 more per hour than Māori, Pasifika and Asian women; and $1 to $4 more per hour than Māori, Pasifika and Asian men. The complex intersections of race and sexual orientation have been diluted. As the data suggests, it is the experience of racism and sexism for women of colour that demands the most scrutiny.

Gender bias from men in senior industry roles have been blamed as the primary cause for the wage gap. Paula Bennett, in her new capacity as Minister for Women, was quick to push the rhetoric. This is a shallow and frankly lazy interpretation of evidence. The active racial and gender bias from employers in positions of power is the most logical explanation of wage disparity. When we fail to consider race we develop solutions like more women on boards, that tend to advantage already privileged women, not those on minimum wage or in insecure work. The experiences of tokenism, discrimination, prejudice and nuanced racism that plague working Māori, Pasifika and Asian women have long been ignored. The lack of willingness to address instances of micro and/or macro aggressions has stagnated progress. The report is not a revelation to these women; it is their lived reality.

In my own experience, Pākehā women are as complicit in maintaining a racial bias in the workplace as their male counterparts. I have not escaped sexual harassment and sexist jibes from male co-workers and employers. Comments on my body, image, relationships, sex life and insults to my intelligence can be difficult to challenge when those men outrank you. Working in across a range of industries, however, my superiors have been predominantly Pākehā women.

In my own experience, Pākehā women are as complicit in maintaining a racial bias in the workplace as their male counterparts.

In my first professional role I was flaunted as a prop; a "clever little Māori" ploy to appear diverse. My duties were performative, domestic labour; preparing morning tea for all staff, fetching the Herald for my boss every morning and cleaning the kitchen and washing dishes. On top of my daily workload I was also designated projects based on the false assumption I was culturally competent. I facilitated Treaty of Waitangi workshops, despite having little working knowledge, at the time, of its practical application in community development. Towards the end of my time there I was asked to lead 40 new migrants onto a local marae. I sank into a debilitating depression and when I raised concerns of a possible identity crisis prompted by said events, I was referred to an in-house psychologist. The psychologist, being Pākehā, could not fathom the complexities of cultural dislocation from Te Ao Māori.

In my minimum wage hospo jobs, my taha tinana suffered. My work ethic was exploited to the limits of physical exhaustion. I developed carpal tunnel in my right wrist and only received treatment after two years because I could not afford to see a GP on my wages. My existing heart condition was in constant jeopardy. Almost all my workmates were new migrants and under similar pressures, many with young families. I was bullied by a few members of the company's head office though I never challenged them because my job was a prerequisite of survival.


Experiences of workplace discrimination are far too common amongst non-Pākehā women. In my opinion, the root cause of the gulf in wages is colonisation and capitalism; and labour market is the systematic maintenance of both social hierarchies. For Māori and Pasifika women, we are overexposed to negative determinants of health and mahi is one of them. The wage gap is a health issue too. It is an issue that demands action from Cabinet, not lip service during question time.

Some progress is being made. Māori and Pacific communities are reclaiming and decolonising the work space from a grassroots level.

Some progress is being made. Māori and Pacific communities are reclaiming and decolonising the work space from a grassroots level. Launched in 2016, Tupu Toa is an initiative that aims to support Māori and Pasifika rangatahi into corporate leadership roles, and to create those roles when they do not exist. Currently less than five percent of senior business roles are held by Māori and Pasifika; and Tupu Toa aims to change the narrative. Local iwi Ngāti Whatua have been instrumental in developing the programme and will be available nationwide by 2021.

In February, a hui of prominent Māori business leaders was held. Their goal was to discuss ways in which to monopolise technology and science to achieve better outcomes for Māori. With a whānau-centric approach, participants explored the possibilities of utilising the collective assets of iwi, with a combined value of around $42 billion. Government resistance to funding research in this sector presents a barrier and requires a significant investment to assist Māori in transforming our socio-economic status.

The Living Wage campaign is also concerned with addressing the widening gap between the rich and poor. The figure, $19.80 per hour, reflects the cost of basic necessities in life; from petrol or transport, to food, housing or healthcare. Employers, such as James Crow of Nice Blocks and Nice Cream, volunteer to trial the living wage for their staff. Crow has since reported that his staff are happier, more productive and present a higher quality of work. It's a simple, effective and ethical accreditation process that values the contributions of employees regardless of role or rank.

Paula Bennett stated yesterday that employers want to treat staff fairly, but the experiences of Māori, Pasifika and Asian women sit in opposition to that claim. She refused to take legislative reform but it is imperative if we are to bridge the gap to higher wages for minority groups. Endorsing initiatives such as a living wage and growing the funding pool for Tupu Toa must go hand-in-hand with abandoning National ventures like the youth wage, drug testing beneficiaries, and raising the superannuation age by two years.

As a show of good faith, the employers Bennett so gallantly defended yesterday require emergency cultural competency training. New Zealand's corporate elite all too often respond to criticism with lip service, rather than action. We need acts of committal, like wealth redistribution from the bottom up; from CEOs and boardrooms across the country. We need to work together to overhaul our current employment model to one where everyone has equal access to opportunity; one where we all prosper.

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