Covid-19’s Impact on Women in New Zealand & the Gender Pay Gap

As the world stares down a tunnel of post-covid unfamiliarity, women both in New Zealand and abroad are looking into one that is obstacled with layers of uncertainty.

A widening Gender Pay Gap is one of the colossal roadblocks ahead for Women in New Zealand. It threatens to be exacerbated as Covid’s impacts continue to unravel. New Zealand’s Gender Pay Gap recently increased from 9.2% to 9.3% between 2018 and 2019. Considering that those pre-covid figures emerged during greater economic stability and prosperity, there’s a chance that the 2019-2020 figure presents a bleaker picture for future results.

Adding to this bleak picture are findings from Strategic Pay’s recently released report: Understanding Pay Equity and Analysing the Gender Pay Gap in New Zealand. They’ve found that New Zealand’s pay gap is nearly double of what is reflected in official figures, warning that it’s in fact at an alarming 17.2% as of September 2020. A high-level contributing factor to this is, no doubt, the disproportionate redundancies women have faced so far. On the first wave of the pandemic’s tsunami of effects, 10,000 of the 11,000 jobs lost in New Zealand, during the June Quarter belonged to women. That’s 90% of all local job losses, compared to a more centralised 54% worldwide (Statistics NZ).

Information on exactly what contributed to this disproportion is yet to ripen, however most findings so far point to women’s placement in the labour market as the answer. Just as men in the male-dominated financial sector lost jobs in the 1980’s and 2008’s GFC, it’s now frontline women in the service sector who are most at risk.

New Zealand’s sales and hospitality sectors, which employ 60% and 70% women respectively, were among the hardest hit during our first Level 4 and 3 lockdowns (Statistics NZ). These and other female-dominated frontline roles like tourism, domestic care and cleaning saw their demand dry up during lockdown —and, without the possibility to work from home like many white collar roles — led them to be the first in line for redundancies. These are also industries that employ high rates of wāhine Māori and Pasifika women. Also important to remember is that these figures emerged from our first lockdown, and at a time where money was in people’s pockets from wage subsidies and Covid-relief payments. There’s also the hypothesis that part time workers—common among women with young families—were among some of the first considered to be let go. However, as with many of the impacts, this is yet to be expanded on in statistics and research. Therefore, there’s a chance that these figures may be exacerbated since the second lockdown and the government payments dried up.

New Zealand’s Covid responses have side-stepped recognising and bringing equity to the disproportionate effect this pandemic will have on our women. Strategic Pay’s findings stresses the importance of implementing measures to recognise and support this: in the form of long-term strategies, not the ‘quick fix’, reactive measures we’ve seen so far. They also stress it’s important to remember how and when the data surrounding local effects of Covid on women and minorities is collected—that’s if it is collected in the first place. Reminding us that “we cannot fight what we do not measure.” A recent example of this is the finding that women only make up a tiny 15% of members on Covid Recovery decision makers across the globe (BMJ Global Health). That statistic parallels New Zealand’s Covid decision-makers, with 7 of 11 members of our Epidemic Response Committee being men.

It seems that we haven’t learnt from previous mistakes and patterns, where overseas examples have shown pandemics wreck havoc on pay equality. Zika and Ebola viruses, for example, have illustrated that women’s pay rates take longer to return to pre-pandemic rates than that of their male counterparts. We can’t discredit these statistics and trends due to the fact they are related to overseas, lower socio-economic countries—as we’ve already seen this trend appear here, following the Christchurch earthquakes. 

Another emerging statistic that threatens to amplify the Gender Pay Gap is the effects Covid threatens to have on women’s health. While men have accounted for more Covid-cases than women, it’s women that are set to be most impacted by severe, long-term, chronic issues that extend beyond their recovery from Covid. Formerly fit and healthy women with an average age of 44 are the group most likely to be affected, who are coined as Covid “Long Haulers.” These since many “Long Haulers” threaten to have their capacity for work and income diminished, this presents another set back in women’s advancements. 

The looming potential of returns to 1950’s-style households also threatens to exacerbate the gender pay gap, should we remain idle. Reduced access to care in the paid economy (like babysitting, schools, domestic care) is moving these workloads into the unpaid economy: the home. With this, previously dual-earning families may find themselves considering to step away from work in order to provide care. These decisions aren’t often in the women’s favour: as in heteronormative households, these care duties are likely to fall on the woman’s shoulders. 

Crises have historically spurred a flurry of effects on women. Some have provided the building blocks for a progression of women’s roles and rights in the world — and others have acted as wrecking balls to shatter and stifle these. We’ve seen World War I and II boost women’s inclusion in male-dominated workplaces — or rather, workplaces, point blank. Not only was it a solid stepping stone for women into the health, tech and IT realms, it also represented a small shakeup of traditional family roles to support it. 

We’re proud to see many of our Global Women Partners and Members prioritise keeping women in the pipeline as they restructure, as not to add to these sobering statistics. We call on our Partners and Members to lead by example during this time, and actively look for ways in which to keep women in the pipeline, whether it be supporting the mentoring or retraining of women.

It’s up to us—as institutions, governing bodies, decision makers and individuals—to make space for the conversations, education, and strategising that we need to futureproof and overcome these setbacks. At a time of ‘quick-fix’ reactive thinking, we need to ensure women and minorities are present in the decision making spaces, so we can not only remedy the disastrous effects on women, but rather create rock-solid frameworks to pave the way for the future we’ve long been fighting for.

Symptoms of a broken system: the gender gaps in Covid-19 decision-making, Kim Robin van Daalen
Overall gender pay gap is 17.7% in NZ, Strategic Pay NZ
Women make up just 15% of Covid advisory groups worldwide, Josie Adams, The Spinoff


About Ava Wardecki – Ava channels her love of storytelling into writing and as a director of a social media company. With a background in corporate branding, social media and public relations and a conjoint Marketing and Public Relations degree from AUT and HEC Paris, she’s worked across corporate, fashion, lifestyle and hospitality industries. Paris born and Auckland raised and a keen traveller, she’s passionate about how understanding and creating cultures that can inspire and evoke change.