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Laila Harre Addresses Nat. Council Of Women

Hon Laila Harre

Address to National Council of Women Annual Conference
Lecture theatre
King's College
Golf Rd

Good afternoon, and thank you for the invitation to take part in your annual conference.

I would like to start by saying thank you to the members of the National Council of Women who have worked hard to keep the candle burning for the New Zealand women's rights movement during a decade that almost caused that flame to falter.

The change in government has revived the will of many women who had become disheartened by the lack of progress being made towards true gender equality, and renewed the fighting spirit of a group of people that see equality as a basic human right.

I'm pleased to see the NCW taking its rightful place at the forefront of this new wave, and grasping the opportunity to agitate for some key issues that I agree have been on the backburner for too long.

One of these is women's economic independence, to which you have dedicated this year's conference. You have also asked me to report back on Beijing +5, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on women that was held in New York in June this year.

I thought it would be a appropriate to start things off with a bit of good news, and I'm pleased to be able to announce that 10 countries, including New Zealand, have now ratified the optional protocol to the United Nations Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. This means the optional protocol will come into force on December 22, giving New Zealand women the ability to make individual complaints to the international commission if the have exhausted all avenues of redress in their home country.

Beijing Platform for Action

New Zealand sent a delegation of 12 women, which made a very positive impact in New York. Alliance MP Dr Liz Gordon presented the New Zealand statement on my behalf, and Women's Affairs chief executive Judy Lawrence presented a paper on the role of men and boys in ending gender-based violence.

Some battles were fought to maintain the language and impetus of the 1995 Platform for Action, but real advances were made in a number of areas. New Zealand's contribution was very well received, and our delegation was one of the very few that included indigenous women.

There were good outcomes on poverty and globalisation, in particular the references to the need to ensure the full and effective participation of women in the design and implementation of poverty eradication programmes. References to the particular challenges facing New Zealand women were maintained, as were those to the challenges faced by small island developing states. A major point of progress was the inclusion of stronger language on violence against women, which included specific references to violent acts such as honour crimes.

Like-minded countries were also successful in including a reference to the need to support adolescent mothers and provide adolescents with appropriate information on reproduction and sexuality. Other steps forward included the enhanced recognition of the need for political will and commitment to advance the protection and promotion of women's human rights.

Achieving economic independence

Already the government has taken some significant steps towards improving women's economic independence. The Property Relationships Act, assuming its passage through Parliament, will not only address de facto and same sex relationship property issues, but importantly acknowledges that things that look equal are not necessarily so.

The ability of the court to divide property adequately to avoid future disparity between separating partners is not about feathering the nests of those with their own level of economic independence. It is about protecting those who have bought the traditional role division in relationships and limited their economic independence as a result.

The repeal of the Employment Contracts Act had women very much in mind. Provisions which make it more likely that vulnerable workers will be classified as employees rather than contractors, and general requirements around the contracting out of work will disproportionately benefit women. The next step of reviewing our minimum code will focus on the transfer of undertakings in the case of competitive tendering – a process that has decimated the earnings of cleaners, caterers and laundry workers – EEO and leave entitlements.

Economic independence, or the lack of it, has a huge impact on the ability of all citizens able to participate in society.

And the realty is that women remain much less likely to achieve economic independence than men, largely due to the double burden of paid and unpaid work we shoulder due to childbearing.

So we have entered the workplace in droves, but there hasn’t been a relative reduction in the amount of time and unpaid labour women devote to domestic duties. Neither have we seen a comparable rise in men's participation in unpaid domestic work. The division of labour is proving to be more of an abyss.

The fact that the increase in working mothers hasn't naturally resulted in an increase in domesticated dads is no surprise. It's a bit like the Shared Parenting Bill that was defeated in the House earlier this year. It sounds good in theory, but
it's going to take much more than a law change or improved employment opportunities for women to invoke the massive culture shift it will take for equal parenting to become the norm.

To achieve this we would literally have to create a new social reality. For example, one of the biggest barriers to the equal division of labour in the home is the structure of New Zealand's labour market, in which full-time continuous career paths are the key to success. For most women, this is simply impossible.

Yet changing the structure of the labour market to accommodate the realities of parenting won't just benefit women. Flexible work hours and paid parental leave entitlements would also give men the option of sharing this role, and until this happens the division of labour will remain characterised by a gender-based division of domestic duties.

New Zealand is lagging behind the rest of the world on this front. We are one of a handful of ILO member countries to have no national provisions for paid parental leave. More than 120 do. One of my staff members was recently in the United Kingdom attending a meeting of mainly third world women, many of whom couldn't believe a progressive country like New Zealand still didn't cater for such a basic social need as paid time off work after the birth of child.

The New Zealand women I marked Suffrage Day with by taking part in the launch of a new Paid Parental Leave campaign echoed this sentiment.

At the moment, I am working with Labour Party Ministers to reach a government position on Paid Parental Leave. The Alliance policy is well known – 12 weeks funded by a minimal employer levy. Labour policy is for paid leave starting at six weeks funded from general taxation. The Alliance is advocating a cap of 80% of wages – the same as ACC. Labour has indicated a benefit-level payment.

Obviously, these are quite different positions, and what the government is in the process of working out is how we can put in place a system of Paid Parental Leave that does justice to working parents, and doesn't fob them off a la National's Parental Tax Credit scheme.

The eight weeks offered by the Parental Tax Credit scheme doesn't come close to the ILO minimum standard, which was recently increased to 14 weeks. And $150 a week is hardly a decent level of income for new parents, either single or a couple, to live comfortably while nurturing their newborn.

Unlike the previous government, when the Labour-Alliance Government moves on Paid Parental Leave it will not be a symbolic gesture.

But the government does not have a bottomless pit of money under the Beehive, so at the moment we are looking closely at the different options for funding Paid Parental Leave at a decent level.

For example, one possible mix is using the money allocated to the Parental Tax Credit scheme and topping this up with a contribution from general taxation and a small employer levy.

Whatever the final mix, the reality is that any cost to employers will ultimately be absorbed by the country as a whole, and to me this makes more sense than the taxpayer subsidising a particular group of people for something that should be an employment right. The Alliance doesn't think it's the government's job to pay people's wages.

The most strident opposition to an employer levy comes from those employers who feel they shouldn't have to pay a levy of around $1.20 a week to fund 12 weeks paid leave because having children is a lifestyle choice, and therefore a private responsibility.

Parenting, like working, is a social responsibility, and simply cannot be separated from the other things we do. Not only that, you couldn't go far wrong if you put money on the likelihood that a vast quantity of the female half of the working population having babies. Yet it's generally accepted that employers should fund accident compensation for injured workers regardless of whose fault the accident is. And the reality of women's lives is that we incur fewer unintentional injuries than men do. Nearly a third of men reported an injury in 1996/1997 compared with just over a fifth of women.

Neither do bosses expect employees to make their own arrangements when they take some time off to spend with the family over Christmas, mourn the loss of a loved one, or recover from a cold. Unlike nearly every country in the world New Zealand has been able to legislate the social benefits of just about every form of time off work, except the unavoidable time off that every woman needs after giving birth.

This enforced split in women's productive and reproductive roles has had a huge impact on economic equality, and one of the most tangible examples of this is the gender pay gap.

A recent Department of Labour report on this topic found that the male-female gap in average hourly earnings has actually decreased over the last 15 years.

In 1984 women's average hourly earnings were 79% of men's and 86% in 1999 – an increase of 7 percentage points.

However, rather than narrowing across the pay spectrum, the gender pay gap has in fact widened among higher paid employees compared to lower paid employees, and the closure of the gap has been slower among higher paid than lower paid employees.

Effectively, a drop in the average hourly earnings of lower-paid males to bring them down to the level of women has had a positive impact on the gender pay gap – certainly not the ideal way of dealing with inequality.

Research has also tested the theory that family responsibilities are commonly regarded as a potential cause of pay differences between men and women, and found evidence to support this. Unfortunately, data limitations meant it was impossible to draw very reliable conclusions about the size or underlying cause of family wage effects.

Looking solely at the experience of women aged 20-39 years, the study found that having one dependent child was associated with a 7% estimated reduction in hourly earnings, while having two or more dependent children was associated with a 10% estimated reduction in hourly earnings. The results also indicated that sole mothers in waged employment experienced larger wage penalties than did partnered mothers.

So without intervention the gender pay gap has narrowed slightly, but we have to decide whether it has happened at a pace we are happy with. This question can be applied broadly to women's economic independence, and as women committed to change we have a couple of options.

Either we can continue to lobby for better recognition of the reality of women's lives through gender-specific legislation, or we can take the advice of Australia's first and only female High Court judge, Mary Gaudron, as quoted in a recent article on the lack of policies and male support for women's dual roles as workers and mothers.

She was referring to the work of an Australian geneticist with a theory that male children inherit their intelligence wholly from their mothers, and put this up as a pretty good argument against motherhood, the reason being that:

"The intelligent women just need to wait a few generations until men are completely dumbed down and then we can take over."

Thank you.

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