Women, Ethnicity and the Gender Pay Gap in New Zealand

An interview with Equal Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali’i Dr Karanina Sumeo

In October 2018, Saunoamaali’i Dr Karanina Sumeo was appointed New Zealand’s Equal Opportunities Commissioner. In this interview we ask Saunoamaali’i her views about women, ethnicity and the gender gap in New Zealand. We discuss her personal work experiences and her recommendations for what people in leadership can do to promote more equality in the workplace.

Saunoamaali’i has extensive public sector experience in social, education and health policy, including roles focused on supporting outcomes for Pacific children and families. Saunoamaali’i holds a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Philosophy in Social Policy. Motivated to carry out research on the rights of women, Saunoamaali’i completed a PhD from the Auckland University of Technology on the rights of women, fa’afafine and fakaleiti to land under traditional tenure in urban centres of Samoa and Tonga. Originally from the village of Vailima, Upolu, Samoa, Saunoamaali’i moved to New Zealand at the age of 10 and is raising two daughters and a son here.


Do you currently perceive a bias against women in the workplace in New Zealand? How is this playing out and do you have a sense of the scale of this problem? 

Yes, there is a bias in New Zealand’s workplaces against women. We see this is as the gender pay gap, lack of women in leadership and the information about sexual harassment in the workplace such as the recent issues with the legal profession and in Parliament. Research by Gail Pachecho and Isabel Sim concludes “there is clear evidence of a glass ceiling for women in New Zealand.”

New Zealand has a 9.3% gender pay gap. It is much wider for Māori, Pacific and ethnic minority women. The 2018 State Services Commission report shows that in the public sector the gender pay gap is 12% and sits at around 27% for Pacific women. This gap has widened in the last two years.

We have had very concerning data about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the legal profession, in Parliament and in the Defence Force , but no national sexual harassment survey like those carried out in Australia by the Human Rights Commission there. There are also the stories of women being collected by the Ali Mau and the journalists running the #MeTooNZ campaign at Stuff which show a very concerning picture of sexual harassment in New Zealand’s workplaces. We can hypothesise on the prevalence, but without a national survey it is hard to comment on the scale of the problem and the actual impact this is having on women’s career progress.

As a specialist in Pacific communities in New Zealand do you perceive any challenges for Pacific women
either in New Zealand or abroad? 

Pacific women consistently have the lowest wages of any group in New Zealand in both the private and public sector.  There are cultural issues around negotiating pay. Pacific people, particularly women, value service and may consider it rude to ask for higher pay. They are more likely to take what is offered, and not ask for a pay rise.  According to The Human Rights Commission webtool ‘Tracking Equality at Work’, European/Pakeha people earn the highest hourly wage, followed by Asian, Māori and at the bottom Pacific people. These positions remain unchanged over the last 7 years, even as wages rise.

Are there are any tactics that you have employed yourself, or would suggest other women to do in terms of tackling gender bias in the workplace, for example, when negotiating pay or going for a promotion?

I have had experience of the pay gap for Pacific women. In a previous position, I found out that I was paid on a different salary scale than colleagues in a very similar role. The top end of the salary scale I was on was about $40,000 lower than the one being used for those in a similar role. I challenged and convinced management, the human resources team, and the relevant union of my equal pay claim.

The whole process took about five to six months for the amended pay scale to come into effect. My concern is that women are less aware of their rights, unfamiliar with the system, struggling with English, with limited literacy, desperate to hold onto their jobs, or with low confidence, may struggle to remedy the situation, with or without a union to support them.

My suggestion is that women ask more questions when applying and interviewing for a role about the pay scale. Women are often offered a role at the lower end of the pay scale when they start a role. If there is an expectation that women are going to need to negotiate their pay scale, prospective employers should make this clear at the beginning, so women can prepare for this.

However, pay inequality shouldn’t be a problem solely put back onto women. Employers and businesses need to be more transparent about what they are paying all their employees, so women know whether they are getting paid the same as male colleagues. New Zealand is far behind other countries like Australia, the UK, Germany and parts of Canada where they have made it a requirement for businesses to be transparent and report on their gender pay and bonus gaps.

The Human Rights Commission has started a campaign for the government to introduce pay transparency to businesses’ with over 100 employees in New Zealand.


Saunoamaali’i Dr Karanina Sumeo’s suggestions for those in leadership to promote equality in the workplace:  

  1. Every business should make visible the pay scale on their job descriptions.
  2. Businesses with 50+ employees should include a progression strategy in the pay offer to a new female recruit to help her lift her pay for the first 3 years of employment.
  3. Employ the Minister for Women’s State Sector Targets to make your workplace more gender inclusive.
  4. Carry out a forensic examination of pay and opportunities for employees at each level and develop a plan to tackle any inequalities you find.
  5. Make flexible working the default for women and men. Ensure it does not undermine career progression or pay. It is only when men can fully share caring responsibilities that women can achieve equality.
  6. Ensure there is no bias or discrimination in remuneration systems and human resource hiring practices. Practices such as cultural awareness training and blind CVs can help against disadvantaging Maori, Pacific or other ethnic minorities.
  7. Employ a gender balanced leadership at all levels. Think about how you can get more diverse women into leadership roles.