Sasha Borissenko: The ‘glass escalator’ phenomenon and equal pay

OPINION:

Last week the majority of New Zealand Nurses Organisation members supported a ballot for three strikes in July, August, and September after failing to reach an agreement with District Health Boards (DHBs) over issues relating to retention, under-staffing, and pay. The last collective agreement – covering nurses, midwives, and health care assistants employed by DHBs expired in June 2020 and negotiations have since been going on for a year.

True to most female-dominated professions that have been traditionally undervalued, underlying these struggles are issues relating to pay equity, which we’ve already discussed, and equal pay.

So what's equal pay?

To quote the Employment New Zealand website, “equal pay is about men and women getting the same pay for doing the same job”. The Equal Pay Amendment Bill was introduced in Parliament in 2018, and came into force in November last year. The legislation ensures all employees are paid equally based on the value of their work and skill irrespective of gender.

Unlawful discrimination is defined as: “No employer shall refuse or omit to offer or afford any person the same terms of employment, conditions of work, fringe benefits, and opportunities for training, promotion, and transfer as are made available for persons of the same or substantially similar qualifications employed in the same or substantially similar circumstances on work of that description by reason of the sex of that person.”

While the gender pay gap has reduced from 16.3 per cent to 9.5 per cent since 1998, the gap has stalled in the last decade. Ministry for Women figures suggest male professionals earn an average of $38.92 an hour, while women professionals earn $31.23. Male managers earn an average of $35.29 an hour, while women managers earn an average of $25.57.

NZNO industrial services manager Glenda Alexander says the main problem is secrecy around salary distribution. “It’s very difficult to resolve this in the private sector. You might be working alongside males doing the same job and earning less but because you’ve got individual agreements and there’s a lack of transparency, it’s a difficult barrier to overcome.”

While there are salary bands that you might know about, you may start a job at a different base and not hear about bonuses or reviews and be none the wiser, she says.

As women make up the majority of nursing at 90 per cent, there are a disproportionate number of men in management, Alexander says.

This phenomenon is known as the “glass escalator”. The “glass ceiling” is a term to describe the discriminatory structure blocking a woman’s rise to seniority, whereas “glass escalator” describes the disproportionate promotion of men in female-dominated industries.

There are a number of factors – women taking breaks in their careers for child rearing, or males being perceived as good at standing up for themselves, for example, Alexander says. “Then there’s unconscious bias, where if a woman rocks up for an interview and she’s of child-bearing age – a potential employer isn’t allowed to ask whether she plans to have children, but there’s an assumption that she probably will.”

What can you do about it?

Under the Equal Pay Act employers must ensure there’s no difference in pay for women who work the same, or substantially similar skills, responsibility, and experience, and who work under the same, or substantially similar conditions, and with the same, or substantially similar degrees of effort.

If you think you’re not getting the same as a male counterpart, you may either pursue a claim under the Equal Pay Act, or make a complaint under the Human Rights Act, or you may apply to the Employment Relations Authority by way of a personal grievance under the Employment Relations Act. Note if you decide to pursue a claim under the Equal Pay Act, you can’t exercise any rights under the Human Rights Act or the Employment Relations Act.

You’ll need evidence or substantial grounds to make a claim, which can be tricky in and of itself in a climate of individual employment contracts. Then there’s the issue of mental load, cost, and time. What’s more, in a country where there are very few degrees of separation, there’s the nasty issue relating to securing references for future employment.

What does this tell you? Opt to work in the public sector, or if you’re thinking about exercising your rights it’s best to job hunt before you take your employer to the mattresses.

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