Book review: Hopes Dashed? The Economics of Gender Inequality

By Prue Hyman (Wellington: BWB Texts, 2017)

Reviewed by Cybèle Locke

This book packs an educational punch and is a must-read for anyone working to eradicate gender inequality in Aotearoa New Zealand. In Hopes Dashed?, Prue Hyman argues that a feminist analysis is crucial to understanding women’s economic and social position, and why gender inequalities have not disappeared: “ethnicity, class, marital status, age and other demographic characteristics continue to interact with gender to stratify society” (7-8). Hyman explains that despite the positive changes brought by feminist activists since the mid-1990s, neoliberal policies that sustain a dual economy of haves and have-nots also ensure gender inequalities continue. This work updates her 1994 book Women and Economics: A New Zealand Feminist Perspective, also published by Bridget Williams Books. Hopes Dashed? is not a good news story, but one we can use to push our new government to make radical policy changes that eradicate structural inequities.

In a succinct style, Hyman introduces the current state of feminism, feminist economics, the global economic landscape and women’s fight for change, defining the terms by which this book was written. The beauty of feminist economics is that it encompasses “how orthodox economic theories, systems and policies” impact men and women differently, and “how this links with the different impacts of ethnicity, class, age and other aspects of life both within and between countries” (11). Chapters one and two explore how inequality operates in unpaid and paid work, and chapters three, four and five suggest how we should fix it.

Chapter One, ‘Unpaid Work’, reminds us that the primary indicator of economic activity, gross domestic product (GDP), continues to ignore unpaid labour—household and caring work—most of which is done by women. Despite the scholarship of feminist economists, including Marilyn Waring’s powerful world-renowned book Counting for Nothing, published in 1988, unpaid productive and reproductive work remains relatively invisible, and for welfare beneficiaries, seriously stigmatised. Hyman paints a statistical portrait of unpaid work, carefully laying out how crucially interdependent productive activities and household labour are. Women continue to do on average two more hours a day of unpaid work than men, and those with young children do even more so; this gender gap has not changed in New Zealand over a ten year period. Hyman asks key questions: how can paid work be valued, especially as it has been found that households with unpaid caregivers earn on average ten percent less than those without such responsibilities, and why has government support been so unforthcoming, apart from for those aged over 65?

The most sorely undervalued are sole parents, the vast majority of whom are women (84.2 per cent in 2013, with Māori and Pasifika women overrepresented in that number), and Hyman examines their position in some detail. Due to substantial benefit cuts in 1991 and inflation-only adjustments since then, “[a]bout 90 per cent of … [sole parent households] had an equivalised disposable income below the overall median, with 56 per cent in poverty” (34). Drawing on the work of First Union, the Child Poverty Action Group, accountant academic Lisa Marriott and Auckland Action Against Poverty, Hyman explains how the benefit system in combination with a casualised workforce traps sole parents and their children in poverty. She compares the punitive treatment of those who commit benefit fraud, motivated by basic needs or escaping domestic violence, with wealthier citizens who commit tax fraud, motivated by status and esteem. Tax evasion costs us 25 to 50 times as much as those involved in welfare fraud, yet 60 per cent of those prosecuted for benefit fraud are given jail sentences while only 22 per cent of those convicted of tax fraud are jailed; the government has cancelled tax debt while “mothers who owe benefit debt are pursued for the rest of their lives” (42). Gender, class and ethnic discrimination are most obvious amongst sole parents, but many others dependent on benefits or very low incomes face the same issues.

Chapter Two, ‘Paid Work’, reviews women’s position in the paid labour market. While the glass ceiling has been smashed by individuals, structural barriers still remain. A combination of lower levels of unionisation and collective contract coverage, a substantial increase in precarious work, women’s greater involvement in unpaid work, and gender differences in employment and occupation adversely affect women’s labour market status. Hyman argues that the need for women’s equal opportunity has been recognised in theory but not achieved in practice. Women’s position in the labour market is explored statistically, and the roadblocks to equality—job segregation, the wage gap, discrimination—are convincingly mapped. Women and men continue to do very different jobs and women are clustered in lower-paying jobs, with very few making it through the hierarchy to the top. Thanks to campaigners, the wage gap of 12-15 per cent is well known, but Hyman breaks it down by occupation, weekly and yearly incomes, and includes part-time as well as full-time work to give a clearer picture of how the gap widens dramatically in particular circumstances. For example, the finance/insurance industry has one of the widest pay gaps; women earned 30.2 per cent less than men in 2016.

Contention remains over the role of discrimination in creating the gender earnings gap because it is so hard to pin down. A Ministry for Women’s Affairs (renamed the Ministry for Women in 2014) report offers a useful summary: “cultural beliefs, attitudes, stereotypes and values create ‘biased, often unconscious, perceptions about women’s ability to advance and/or lead effectively’, creating invisible barriers to their progression” (63). Attention is drawn to policies that have prevented progress towards gender equality: the repeal of the Employment Equity Act in 1990, the closure of the Department of Labour’s Pay and Employment Equity Unit, which conducted gender pay review work in the 2000s but never had the chance to action findings; the removal of job protections in industrial relations legislation; and harsh measures that push beneficiaries with young children back into the workforce. With this in mind, Hyman argues for major policy interventions in the following chapters.

Chapter Three, ‘Towards Equal Opportunities and Equal Outcomes’, discusses how implementation of equal employment opportunities (EEO), pay equity and more “equal gender sharing of unpaid work” are required to bring about equality for women (95). EEO “requires equal gender access to jobs, training, promotion and other humancapital- enhancing factors” (69). Policy provisions for EEO have been in place in the public sector since 1988, but not in the private sector; Judy McGregor was appointed the first Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, operating out of the Human Rights Commission in 2002, but with little power to effect change. Recourse to the courts on this issue has had mixed results due to differing interpretations of “fairness, equity and discrimination” by workers and their employers. One applicant argued fairness meant “recognising difference and social disadvantage” while their employer argued that “equal” meant the “same treatment for all” (73-4). Hyman draws our attention to the mind-set that needs to change. Orthodox economists describe the gender gap as an outcome of women’s individual and household choices, and that women only need encouragement to do better. Instead, she contends, we need to open our feminist toolbox and challenge the very social norms this judgement is predicated on.

To bring about substantial change, job segregation and under-valuation of female-dominated work needs to be addressed “by the principle of equal pay for work of equal value” (78). This is where comparatives are made between female-dominated and male-dominated workforces that share “similar overall levels of skill, responsibility, effort and working conditions” (79). Unions, academics and feminist groups have long argued for this and Hyman briefly examines this history. She then provides a case study of the Service and Food Workers’ Union (SFWU) and Kristine Bartlett care
workers’ case, which argued “$14.46 an hour was a discriminatory rate of pay for work done almost exclusively by women in the female-dominated rest-home sector” (86). In August 2013, the Employment Court found in Bartlett’s favour, and made a strong ruling that cases for equal pay for work of equal value can be made under the 1972 Equal Pay Act. New pay equity claims were then filed by the SFWU (now part of E tū), the Public Services Association and the Nurses Organisation. Hyman describes the National government-led committees that were established in 2015 to develop Pay Equity Principles and recommendations to amend the 1972 Equal Pay Act, and to settle the Bartlett pay equity claim. She expresses the fear that the Equal Pay Act 1972 may not be allowed to stand and concludes: “while women are over-represented in today’s less-well paid, casualised, precarious workforce, they will not attain full economic independence. And of course lower-paid men are also disadvantaged by labour market differentials, which are far too wide. My personal nightmare is of a ‘50 per cent’ future, where women occupy half the jobs at all levels but nothing else has changed—race and class inequality and differentials generally are unaffected” (95). Chapter Four, ‘The Importance of Radical Labour Market Policies’, suggests universal policies that could produce equal outcomes: increasing minimum wage provisions (and workers’ minimum rights and entitlements as set out in law), bringing minimums more in line with the ‘living wage’, currently set at $20.20 an hour in New Zealand, and a universal basic income to recognise and value unpaid work.

These are all excellent suggestions but I wanted to know more. What are Hyman’s recommendations on how the minimum wage should be set, what should it be, how could it be related to the ‘living wage’? Propositions for Universal Basic Income (UBI) are numerous and complex, and require some fulsome explanation of how it could operate in New Zealand, and why it would be dangerous to replace other targeted welfare with a UBI. However, I am aware of how much this text was reduced from its original draft to make it a “short book on a big subject”, so I am content to await the next book.

The concluding chapter, ‘Towards a Compassionate Economy’, reviews New Zealand’s ranking in the world in terms of gender inequality and the many ways that can be measured; what we need, she argues, are new indicators that measure community well-being. If we are to bring about a “truly compassionate society”, Hyman writes, “[i]t means rejecting the orthodox prescriptions that brought us the recent and ongoing global economic, financial and environmental crises. It means questioning received wisdoms—such as the need for ever more growth. It means moving to greater cooperation and less competition. It would be based on the recognition of our real interdependence, not on… individualism” (129).

After this book went to press, the Kristine Bartlett vs Terranova case was settled, and in July 2017 age-care workers received a pay rise to between $19 and $23.50 an hour, which will rise to between $21.50 and $27 an hour in July 2021. This will make a huge difference to the lives of those 55,000 workers. Hyman was prescient in her fears: the National government introduced the Employment (Pay Equity and Equal Pay) Bill, intended to replace the 1972 Equal Pay Act, which trade unionists and Labour, Green and New Zealand First parties opposed because it would make it more difficult for women to achieve pay equity. The new government has just scrapped that Bill, and Minister for Women Julie Anne Genter has committed to working on new legislation that adheres to the principles agreed by the Joint Working Group on Pay Equity. And so to answer the question Prue Hyman’s title asks, no, my hopes are not dashed, and we may yet see some feminist change enacted in parliament. How radical that change is, as always, is up to us.

Cybèle Locke is a labour historian who teaches in the History Programme at Victoria University of Wellington. She is currently Chair of the Labour History Project Committee.