Have working women finally made it?

31 August, 2017

The last week or two has seen a flurry of policy announcements from the major parties that relate to working women – in particular increasing paid parental leave. This is not a moment too soon. In 2017 women make up 47% of all employed people, and in 2013 the Census showed us that 40.3% of mothers in heterosexual couples work full time. Clearly women, and mothers, are working. And spending, and voting...are these policy announcements simply political expediency?

Have women finally made it?

Working women’s rights and support have for a long time only got political and policy traction when it is economically necessary. Some examples are the skills and labour shortages during World War II, during the economic boom of the 2000s, and perhaps now in the construction industry. Paid parental leave is one of those issues that is often seen as a ‘luxury’ not a right, or not a damn sensible policy.

New Zealand is no leader in parental leave: Germany introduced some maternity leave rights in 1883, by World War I 22 countries had some element of maternity leave and the International Labour Organization introduced the Maternity Protection Convention in 1929. But we have (thankfully) moved on from 1980 when there was major debate around the introduction of the 1980 Maternity Leave & Employment Protection Act. This was for unpaid leave. Many of the submissions and parliamentary debate at the time argued against its introduction solely because a woman’s role was to stay at home with the children, not to be in paid work.

However, time and again since, paid parental leave has been put on the burner because we ‘can’t afford it’. In 1987 it didn’t make it and in 1998 Laila Harré’s private member’s Bill for paid parental leave didn’t make it. Finally, in 2002 we rescinded our membership of the infamous group of the last three OECD countries to not have paid parental leave (Australia recently caught up, and the USA – no comment!). Unfortunately ‘unaffordability’ is not historic. In 2016 the Parental Leave and Employment Protection (6 months’ Paid Leave) Bill entered its third reading which would have passed it into legislation after a majority vote in Parliament passed the second reading. This Bill would extend Paid Parental Leave to 26 weeks. 26 weeks paid parental leave would put us at the top of the middle (if we’re lucky) in the OECD. On the 29th June 2016 it was ‘discharged’ because of a financial veto imposed by the National Party. Paid parental leave was unaffordable.

It is high time that issues such as paid parental leave became a policy focus for all our political parties. It is well past time for women to be seen as a serious voting prospect. Let’s hope that the rise of strong women leaders within, and of, political parties, has been a wake up call to the power women in New Zealand can, should and do hold. Only time will tell if policy announcements on parental leave are just political expediency, when women (their votes) are needed, or if it indicates that politics, policy and society is finally catching up with the working woman.

Dr Katherine Ravenswood is a senior lecturer in management, AUT Business School.