Employment organisations

This essay written by Melanie Nolan was first published in Women together: a history of women's organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Melanie Nolan in 2018.


Two major types of working women's organisations developed around the turn of the twentieth century. The first type, women's unions, began with the tailoresses in the late nineteenth century. The second type, professional or 'white blouse' associations of businesswomen, women teachers, nurses and doctors, made clear their distance from trade unionism. The waves of institution-making which followed in the twentieth century were fashioned along this axis. Sometimes, bonds of sisterhood led to alliances between the two, for example for mobilisation during wartime, or equal pay. At other times, working women's organisations disagreed, and class consciousness appeared to be in conflict with female culture. Thus there was no consensus on how to deal with the shortage of domestic servants, or female unemployment during the Depression. Relationships among working women is one major theme of the history of their organisations. Their relationships with their male co-workers is a second theme: here the issue is one of sexual separatism – separate organisation by women – versus integration.

There have been five main waves of working women's institution-making in New Zealand. First, from the late nineteenth century until about 1914, a small but critical proportion, at most 10 per cent, of the growing number of young working women decided to join together to improve the conditions of their employment, rather than continue to rely on protection from male patrons. A second wave occurred between 1914 and the 1930s, when women's organisations diversified to encompass unemployment relief and workplace-based sport. Political divisions among women's groups which had developed in the inter-war period were submerged in a third wave of wartime co-operation between 1939 and 1945. About the same time, male employment organisations made a concerted effort to integrate women's separate organisations and present a united industrial front to employers.

The fourth wave of institution-building, from after the war until the 1970s, saw various women's employment organisations join together in council to fight for equal pay legislation. However, most women involved in the public and private sector equal pay campaigns were aware that achieving the same rate for the job as men would not mean gaining employment equity. From the 1970s, therefore, women's employment organisations were concerned with overcoming their remaining employment disadvantages, arising from their vertical segregation at the bottom of labour market hierarchies, and their horizontal segregation into a narrow band of lower-paid, 'female' occupations (such as retail sales, the clothing industry and office work). These issues became all the more pressing by the early 1990s, when most women were in paid employment, except while caring for their young children, and nearly half of all organised workers were women.

Before 1914

There were few women in paid employment in New Zealand in the early 1880s, and no working women's organisations. [1] Indeed, protective labour legislation, governing hours, wages, health and safety provisions, was introduced with the Employment of Females Act 1873, because of the common belief that women and young people could not 'combine together as workmen do in their trade union to protect themselves and limit the hours of labour'. [2] Unionism swept through the country in the late 1880s, along with a moral panic that poor working women were being 'sweated' – worked long hours at starvation wages. It was not until parsons, politicians, male trade unionists and social reformers combined to avert sweating that tailoresses' unions were formed in the large towns.

Women unionists, who could best be described as industrial or craft feminists, served their apprenticeship during the sweating panic; in its aftermath, they took over the unions men had formed on their behalf. They had to assert themselves to do so. Harriet Morison made it clear that she thought a woman should be secretary of the Dunedin Tailoresses' Union. She orchestrated a public outcry which forced a prominent unionist, Robert Slater, to withdraw his nomination for 'her' position in 1891.

The industrial feminists merged political and economic demands for wage-earning women into a single platform of 'education, unionism, and labour legislation' to improve their lot. [3] However, between 1895 and 1908 the government co-opted almost the entire 1890s generation of women union leaders – Margaret Scott, Harriet Morison, Selina Hale and Elizabeth Bremner – as factory inspectors or Women's Employment Branch officers in the Department of Labour. Ada Whitehorn, Jane Runciman and Alice Cossey, who took their place, were clearly in favour of integrating women into the male-dominated labour movements, and, more than their predecessors, of proving themselves respectable, class-conscious trade unionists with orderly, business-like methods.

The tailoresses' unions were the only successful women's unions for some years. The patterns of women's work and the lack of collective action were linked, and they changed little. Most working women continued to be 'unskilled' and employed in small workplaces not amenable to unionism. Domestic servants were the largest group of women workers until the 1930s; the majority were young, single and in the paid workforce for a relatively brief period. Efforts to organise domestic servants were perennially unsuccessful.

Strong male craft unions were generally antagonistic to women organising in their midst, and the arbitration system did not promote women's unionism as it did men's. Aileen Garmson and Marianne Tasker were unusual in having the support of the Amalgamated Shearers and Labourers' Union and the New Zealand Workers' Union (NZWU) respectively. Indeed, the NZWU financed the five-woman committee which Tasker led to organise domestic servants in August 1899. Ironically, it was male antagonism which prompted some women to organise: 35 women typesetters, for example, unsuccessfully petitioned Parliament in 1891 against legislation which effectively prevented their being apprenticed. The Auckland Female Typesetters' Union formed in 1899, but with only 10 members – too late to keep the occupation open to women.

The female boot machinists were a typical working women's organisation. Their 'girl machinists' union existed for two years around the 1890 union upsurge. They were then subsumed within the Bootmakers' Federation, which won a 'male' industrial award in 1899. When the female operatives won their award in 1909, it made clear the limits of women's employment: it set wages at half the male rate and restricted the sectors in which the women could work.

The industrial wage system formalised sexual segregation of labour by classifying jobs and wages according to gender. Employers played their part by suggesting that men's wages would drop if women's were increased, and that the sex-based system operating in New Zealand was in practice throughout the industrial world; it was fair, natural and non-negotiable. Male unions also got their foot through the arbitration door well before women. Arbitration, especially the clauses requiring employers to give preference of employment to union members, certainly encouraged the development of 'male' unions – but usually to the detriment of female unionism. The male unionists negotiating the female boot operatives’ award, for example, required a woman to have worked five years before she could join the union. Non-union male boot operatives had to join after only a few weeks' employment.

Occupational expansion served to define more sharply the class differences among women. White collar women began organising from the 1890s, with their own labour bureaus. The government Women's Employment Branch dealt almost exclusively with domestic servants, while labour broking was a major function of the nurses' associations until the 1930s. Led by single women, generally from middle-class backgrounds, women teachers, nurses, doctors, headmistresses and hospital matrons formed their own organisations. They had to battle against the common perception that such jobs were vocations for women who were naturally talented (rather than highly skilled), working for the good of humanity and not for the money. They sought improved working conditions through moral suasion, accreditation, regulating entry and maintaining job control – all common union strategies. Nevertheless, they resisted any element of 'trade unionism', particularly the traditional union tactics of strikes and collective bargaining.

The strategy of professionalisation was at once progressive and conservative: women sought some equality with men in training and on the job, but their quest usually precluded cross-class female solidarity. Women public servants and teachers, for instance, were aggrieved at their deteriorating terms of employment from the turn of the century. Arbitrary limits were imposed after 1918 on the salaries women could earn, often in spite of their seniority, skills and responsibilities. While the New Zealand Women Teachers' Association (NZWTA) stood for a 'proper recognition' of women's work, it had to counter specific criticisms that male and female teachers were differently skilled, that male teachers gave better service than female teachers, that there was no problem of supply of women teachers, and that for single women teachers to receive equal pay would not be fair – it would mean 'these fortunate young women throng(ing) the best hotels in the most attractive holiday resorts'. [4] Countering these allegations and winning the support of male colleagues, with whom they had to join forces in other battles over allowances, gradings and superannuation, were more urgent than co-ordinating their campaigns with other women.

Moreover, the industrial system divided women, as it did men. Teachers negotiated with education boards, public servants with the Public Service Commission, and nurses with hospital boards. Women factory, hotel and restaurant workers negotiated through the Arbitration Court. Clerks, shop assistants and domestic workers negotiated directly with employers. In the 1920s both the NZWTA and the Post and Telegraph Union women had common concerns about gender-differentiated salaries, but they fought separate equal pay campaigns.

The National Council of Women (NCW) had always stood for equal pay, and was a possible umbrella organisation to push for far-reaching legislative change. In 1928 the NCW Bulletin listed eight issues specific to working women among 45 pieces of humanitarian legislation which, it argued, had resulted from women's suffrage and their subsequent organised lobbying. On its list of ten measures that women still wanted, two were relevant to women in paid employment: 'non-differentiation between men and women teachers with regard to status and salary' and 'removal of sex disqualification in regard to the civil service'. [5] The NCW's priorities reflected the high proportion of women teachers and other public servants among its members.

The leaders of the NZWTA and the New Zealand Medical Women's Association (NZMWA) were also stalwarts of the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) and the New Zealand branch of the British Medical Association respectively. Like other such groups, the NZMWA was part of a world-wide professional women's movement. Formed in 1921, four years after the American MWA, it wasted no time affiliating to the British Federation of Medical Women and the Medical Women's International Association (1919). Indeed, women teachers and doctors had more to do with their male counterparts and international colleagues than they did with their union sisters.


A second wave of institution-making, from 1914 until the 1930s, centred on three issues: wartime mobilisation, the domestic service problem and unemployment, and 'fun and games'. The differences between professional and union women's organisations were heightened by these developments.

A number of working women's organisations were involved in the war effort. From the outbreak of war, the New Zealand Trained Nurses' Association urged the Minister of Defence to send nurses to Europe. British enthusiasm forced a reluctant New Zealand government to send women to the front: within eight months 600 nurses volunteered. Women's enthusiasm also overrode the government when Ettie Rout organised her Volunteer Sisterhood of 'untrained' women and led them off to war. Officialdom found the Women's National Reserve, formed in Wellington in August 1915, more congenial. Originally a branch of the Men's National Reserve, it shared the aim of performing 'any available work for King and Country'. [6] It urged home-front conscription of women and established a voluntary register of women prepared to free men for overseas service. By June 1916, it had collected the names of 850 Wellington women prepared to do clerical work 'for the duration'. But because centralised manpowering was limited in New Zealand, it did not aid women's organising here as it did overseas.

Women's wartime organising spilled over into the peace. Several ex-servicewomen's associations were formed. The Women's National Reserve continued throughout the inter-war period to fight the losing battle of getting young women to be domestic servants; its Mother's Help Scheme in 1919 was the first of a series of similar initiatives, all concerned with setting up domiciliary hostels and training with certification, and subsidising domestic service. The most successful were the bush nurse and emergency housekeeping schemes set up by the Women's Division of the New Zealand Farmers' Union (as it then was) in 1927. Dr Agnes Bennett established the Household Orderlies Association around 1920, and Esther Glen formed the Home Service Association. These organisations were often formed for rather than by working women. This was particularly evident in the Women's Unemployment Committees which women's groups formed in the four main centres in 1931.

Women leading a demonstration against unemployment, Christchurch, 1932

Christchurch Press, Hocken Collections, University of Otago, P1998-028/02-002

Women leading a demonstration against unemployment in High Street, Christchurch on May Day (1 May) 1932. During the 1930s, women on the political left organised many groups concerned with women’s labour issues and unemployment.

Women of the political left formed their own organisations to protest against the treatment of unemployed women. First, Labour Party stalwarts Margaret Thorn and Margaret Semple formed the Wellington Unemployed Women Workers' Association early in 1932; it operated a register, and a labour and welfare bureau. Also in protest, Miriam Soljak, Alice Basten and Alice Cossey resigned from the Auckland Unemployed Women's Emergency Committee. Communist Party women followed. They formed a number of locally based Women's Sections of the Unemployed Workers' Movement in 1932; and from 1934, Working Woman's Committees formed to support the establishment of their paper, The Working Woman. The committees held two national conferences: the Working Women's Movement was founded at the first, in October 1934, and the United Council of Working Women at the second, in January 1936. Labour Party and Communist Party women co-operated in 'non-party' and 'independent' newspaper schemes, and attempted to draw other women into their coalition.

A new paper, Woman To-day, in 1937 sponsored organisations aiming to 'draw women into closer unity … [to] fight for better living conditions, health, education, equality, progress, democratic rights [and], above all, for peace'. [7] However, Woman To-day showed the limitations of unity based on sex: the paper ended in deep political differences between women of the left and other persuasions. The social crisis of the Depression and the issue of unemployment did not 'create conditions for a co-operative women's movement more united in its concern with gender than it was divided by class'. [8]

But the story of working women's organisations is not simply one of politics at cross-purposes. From the beginning, working women organised for social reasons too. The Dunedin tailoresses organised huge annual picnics in the early 1890s; the most successful Wellington tailoresses' meetings in 1893 were evenings of song and dance; and the Auckland union's 1896 bazaar, with its 'Amazon' skit, received wide public support. These efforts were eclipsed by the massive organisation of working women's sports teams, starting in the inter-war period. The Auckland Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), experienced in catering for working women through its lunch and thrift clubs, organised sports competitions in the 1920s. A 1924 sports day for young women working in soft goods houses was expanded in 1925. The following year, the YWCA set up a more general competition involving women from a wider variety of workplaces, which continued annually until the late 1940s. Similarly, a Wellington Public Service Women's Recreation Club, formed under the auspices of the Public Service Sports Society in 1940, held 'keep fit', handcraft and drama classes, and monthly tea dances. It developed into an independent Public Service Women's Club in 1941, for fellowship, recreation and competition. By 1942 public service women had organised themselves into houses, and 21 teams were involved in a regular inter-house competition.

The relationship between social and political organisation was complex. In the 1930s the YWCA's Round Table Clubs were places where business women met regularly for lunch or tea and sometimes a talk; they led to the formation in 1939 of the New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs (NZFBPW), which soon began working to improve the status of women and girls. The Women's Auxiliary of the Canterbury Manufacturing Association held socials where women were urged to support local merchandise, so as to create jobs during the Depression. The ladies' committee of the Auckland Watersiders' Silver Band, formed in 1944, became the nucleus of the Auckland Women's Auxiliary of the Watersiders' Union in 1950, and was the model for other branches formed in the main centres in 1950–51. Sometimes, too, political organisations became more social, as in the case of the NZWTA and the NZMWA from the 1930s.


During a third phase of institution-building, during the Second World War, women's organisations formed a cross-class alliance over mobilisation. Most organisations urged their branches to co-operate with committees 'formed to carry out the work of women's war time services'. [9] The first Women's Land Service in Canterbury, the Business and Professional Women's Voluntary Army, began in June 1940. The ubiquitous Dr Agnes Bennett and her friends prodded the government into forming a uniformed women's national service. Women's auxiliary service corps had already been formed in Manawatu, Nelson and Hamilton, and a Women's National Service Corps in Auckland. Despite the government's reluctance to have 'women in trousers', it took over the schemes, calling a meeting of representatives of 69 women's organisations to form the official Women's War Service Auxiliary. Union women were not well represented, but they did not form unofficial alternatives, as they had done during the Depression. However, much of their energy was spent assisting women to appeal against manpowering.

At the same time, women in unions began to be confronted with an integration movement which undermined their separate organisations. During the 1920s, the number of women's unions had increased, with the formation of, for example, the Auckland and Wellington Female Printing Assistants and the Dunedin Biscuit and Confectionery Workers. Compulsory unionism in 1936 was also a stimulus to organising women, but it coincided with the new 'One Big Union' movement. The Federation of Labour questioned the rationale of forming separate female unions, rather than strong occupational federations under its umbrella.

Two outstanding casualties of this 'closer organisation' were the tailoresses' and female printing unions. The Wellington and Christchurch tailoresses succumbed to pressure to amalgamate with the tailors in 1935 and 1936. Fears of amalgamation were certainly vindicated: although the Wellington women outnumbered the men three to one, there were only three women on an 11-person executive, on average, for the next two decades. The Dunedin and Auckland tailoresses' executives did not think amalgamation made sense, given that there were 1294 Dunedin tailoresses and 174 Otago and Southland tailors, cutters and pressers in 1945; much to their disgust, male unionists engineered the amalgamation. However, Alice Cossey made sure her Auckland union did not go to ballot as in Dunedin, and kept the female union separate.

The printing unions also merged: a strike in 1935, in which 100 women defied their female union leadership to support their male counterparts, was the precursor to amalgamation and the subsuming of women into the men's union. In the name of working class solidarity, most of the institution-making in the 1930s and 1940s, from hairdressing to selling wigs, consisted of women's sections within trade unions, rather than separate women's unions. Those enamoured of closer organisation formally supported women's unionism, but refused to 'tolerate the independent organisation of women necessary to give it meaning'. [10]

Nursing, however, resisted these tendencies to closer organisation. Always on 'guard against any element of unionism' creeping among them, New Zealand Nurses' Association (NZNA) leaders had a stormy relationship with the Labour government from 1936. [11] Agnes Donner, Dominion secretary 1940-45, described it as a 'class war' in 1942, when the Associate Minister of National Services attempted to remove nurses from the category of 'essential industries', claiming there was no difference between nurses and domestics. [12] Some Labour ministers, led by Nordmeyer, Semple and Webb, thought nurses were underpaid and in need of a union. When a Hospital Workers Industrial Union, which would include student nurses, was proposed in 1936, the NZNA promptly formed a Student Nurses' Association; similarly, a Male Nurses' Association was formed to thwart the Hotel and Restaurant Workers' Union. The NZNA did the paperwork to register itself as a union, but let it lie on the table for 10 years until the storm passed. At the same time, it busied itself with salaries, payment for overtime, and sick leave and annual leave provisions, claiming that the difference between an association and a union was semantic only. When a nurses' union was finally inaugurated in 1973, it was specifically for private-sector nurses.

The changes experienced by the NZNA from the 1920s, as it began to be more representative in terms of geography, ethnicity and marital status, were indicative of general changes in working women's organisations. Between 1923 and 1936, the number of branches grew from those in the four urban centres to 17 branches with nine sub-branches around New Zealand. By 1960 there were 60 branches and sub-branches. Until then, women's employment organisations had been essentially urban and Pākehā. Māori women had a low rate of participation in the formal workforce: 10 per cent in 1926, dropping to 4 per cent in 1936 and rising again to 10 per cent in 1945. As the urban migration gathered pace, Māori women entered mostly domestic work and manufacturing, although there were more Māori nurses too. For the first time, significant numbers of Māori women began to join unions. The number of married women actively involved in the NZNA also began to rise. In 1930 only 5 per cent of conference delegates were or had been married; this rose to 17 per cent in 1945 and to 29 per cent in 1960.


After the Second World War, the equal pay issue profoundly affected all women's employment organisations. The extension of family allowance payments to all mothers started to undermine one of the most serious obstacles to equal pay – the idea that a man needed a larger 'family wage' to support his wife and children, and that equal pay would be unfair in a society where wages were the major form of subsistence. Officially, women's wages rose in proportion to men's from 47 per cent in 1936 to 60 per cent by 1945. After the war, the Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs followed its international sister organisations in taking a serious interest in its third object: 'to support and work for equality between men and women in social, political and economic fields', and particularly in equal pay. [13] It began asking the government to introduce equal pay in steps, starting immediately by making the adult female minimum wage 80 per cent of the adult male minimum wage. Similarly, a special committee of the NCW, reporting in 1952, urged equal pay for equal work. Both found common cause with the Public Service Association (PSA).

If union integration had seemed detrimental to women's organisations in clothing and printing, it proved beneficial for women in the PSA, whose male leadership supported equal pay. The formation of the first PSA women's committees in 1943 signalled the beginning of an effective equal pay offensive. From the late 1940s, there were regular attempts by private sector unions, such as the Clerical Workers and the North Island Electrical Workers, to get equal pay awards through the Arbitration Court. When these were rejected, it became obvious that equal pay could be achieved only by legislation.

The government unwittingly promoted a new phase of institution-building among working women's organisations, via the 1955 Parker case: Jean Parker was demoted and her salary reduced after she successfully appealed against a newly appointed male cadet's classification, which entitled him to a higher maximum salary. Protests by women's organisations were probably instrumental in Prime Minister Sid Holland calling a 'tea party' of representatives from women's and other organisations in 1956 to discuss women's wages. The following year, representatives from trade unions, the New Zealand Educational Instute (NZEI) and women's organisations set up the Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity (CEPO); the NZWTA and NZNA were conspicuously absent.

When the Government Service Equal Pay Act was passed in 1960, it applied to approximately one-fifth of all women in paid employment. The Act's provisions were expected to flow on automatically to the private sector; when this failed to happen, the equal pay campaign was broadened. The Joint Committee on Women and Employment (JCWE), formed in 1964, set up a study committee 'on all aspects of women's dual role', pressed for the establishment of the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women (NACEW), mounted a publicity campaign, and pursued the principle of 'the rate for the job' in cooperation with CEPO. [14] Although a government body, NACEW brought together representatives of women's organisations. From 1969 it and CEPO exerted much pressure on the government, resulting in a major Department of Labour report on equal pay, a 1971 commission of inquiry, and eventually the Equal Pay Act of 1972.

The clerical and retail unions, markedly quiescent in the 1950s, came alive in this second equal pay campaign. Unions with an overwhelmingly female membership slowly evolved into 'women's unions'. Connie Purdue was one of those cultivating the new image. In 1968 only about 12 of the Auckland Clerical Workers' 20,000 female members went to union meetings. Purdue, appointed the union's Social and Welfare Officer in 1967, saw the need to bring the female members together socially and interest them in union affairs. She organised a union luncheon club, fashion parades, self-improvement classes, counselling services, a union social/travel office and holiday motels. When CEPO went 'national' in 1969, beginning with the formation of Christchurch and Auckland District Councils, the Clerical Workers’ Union, the Canterbury Shop Assistants' Union and unionists of the left were major players in the campaign. Together with a number of feminist groups, such as Women for Equality, they prodded the more conservative trades halls.

The new wave of institution-building by working women in the late 1960s was related to profound changes in the patterns of women's employment. Moreover, workforce demographics were significantly changing the concerns of working women's organisations. In the early 1960s, the growing number of married women – or more specifically 'working mothers' – in paid employment was starting to attract attention. The male labour force had increased by about 75 per cent in 35 years, and the female labour force by 145 per cent, but the proportion of married women in the workforce had increased by 900 per cent. [15] Many were employed part-time. Women's training and 'dual roles' became major industrial issues and the focus of research. Ironically, as demographic change brought women's paid work experience closer to men's, it highlighted the persisting differences between them, and promoted equal pay.

If the campaign for equal pay prompted working women to organise, and revitalised existing organisations, the winning of equal pay depressed such activity. Women's separatism collapsed in the public service after the 1960 Act. A younger generation of women teachers saw no point in it. The PSA women's committees went into recess, and in 1967 the association abolished its system of women delegates (two women representatives had sat on the executive since 1914). Equal pay seemed to undermine the justification for such provisions, which had been designed to efface '[a]ny impression ... in the minds of female members … that their interests [were] subordinated to those of male members'. [16] The passing of the 1972 Act also saw JCWE go into recess, and women's sections dissolved in exhaustion after their victory; CEPO went into recess in 1977, once the Human Rights Commission Act had apparently achieved equal employment opportunity for women. NACEW survived, albeit with a low profile, and continued to bring together women's organisation representatives to discuss questions such as training women for the workforce and implementing equal pay.

But the battle was by no means over. Although women's average ordinary time hourly earnings rose by nearly 10 per cent relative to men's (from 70 per cent to 79 per cent) between 1972 and 1977, the earnings gap did not narrow further until the economy grew in the late 1980s; the gap stalled again around 1990.

1970s-Early 1990s

Although women's separatism seemed an anachronism in the immediate aftermath of equal pay, it was revitalised by the second wave of feminism, in which women were united by their common experiences of disadvantage. Working women attended the United Women's Conventions; together with other feminists, they successfully lobbied en bloc for the Human Rights Commission Act 1977, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex, and for the first widespread provision for job-protected maternity leave (unpaid), won in 1980.

From the mid-1970s, however, women's organisations began to stress the differences between women, and to plan separate strategies. Loyalties of sexual orientation, race and class began to divide women's 'sex solidarity', and were reflected in the formation of new informal networks and incorporated societies such as Lesbians in the Public Service (LIPS), and the Nurses' Union Runanga Komiti (later to develop into the National Council of Māori Nurses). Previously unorganised but long-standing occupations became unionised, including women's two 'oldest professions' – sex work and childcare. Amid a 'Women Can Do Anything' campaign, groups such as Women in Engineering formed in non-traditional work areas. Significantly, most employment organisations directly and publicly renewed the debate on female separatism in the 1970s and 1980s. Only some, such as the PSA, decided to integrate their women's organisations into wider structures. The Auckland Tailoresses' Union continued to resist integration, and in 1993 survived as the oldest and most enduring women's employment organisation.

Women's position in trade unions generally improved from the 1970s. A small but crucial group of women slowly worked their way to higher office: Muriel Thompson (Post Office Union), Nellie Bell and Therese O'Connell (Clerical Workers) and Sonja Davies (Retail Workers). In 1976, Davies founded the New Zealand Working Women's Council, which introduced the Working Women's Charter. Adoption of the charter was much debated by unions. Its proposals for equal pay for equal value, flexible working hours, childcare and paid parental leave were controversial, but the clause calling for freely available, safe abortion, contraception and sterilisation was strongly divisive. Although the Federation of Labour eventually adopted the charter in 1980 and the PSA and the Post-Primary Teachers’ Association followed in 1981, the NZEI steadfastly refused to adopt it. Feminists responded by setting up alternative groups such as Auckland Feminist Teachers.

The issue of whether to integrate women's structures within the union movement proved even more divisive. The Wellington Trades Council established a Women's Sub-committee in 1979, the FOL set up a Women's Advisory Council in 1980, and the Combined State Unions followed in 1984. The FOL also endorsed women's organisations being integrated at national and district levels. When the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) formed in 1987, it decided to keep separate women's structures in place. Each of these decisions, particularly the last, was close-run. The CTU's Constitutional and Policy Committee narrowly voted in favour of the women's and Māori committees having full voting rights in the national and regional structures. [17] Those opposing separate structures based on gender or race feared they would divide or weaken the working class, when it should be united in the fight for a living wage. Similar debates raged within a number of unions. Against this backdrop, more women won representative positions in the trade union movement in the 1980s. They had come 'out of the chorus line'. [18]

The new confidence in separatism also led to more organisations. In 1982, the Wellington Trades Council's Women's Sub-committee formed Women Against the Cuts, part of a wider trade union protest at growing recession and unemployment. The Auckland Working Women's Resource Centre, set up in 1984, emerged from an alliance of women clerical, hotel, woollen trades, distribution and early childhood unions. The Canterbury Women's Employment Trust and the Ōtautahi Women's Labour Pool were two of a number of women's responses to rising unemployment in the 1980s.

Professional women also developed new networks and organisations, for example in business, science, law and accountancy. These often evolved out of the plethora of research which the Society for Research on Women and other feminist and professional bodies conducted on women in paid employment from the 1970s. For example, the Association of Women Academics (later the Association of Victoria University Women) was formed after Wellington women academics made a submission to the Select Committee on Women's Rights in 1974. While women in medicine, law, dentistry and academia had theoretically always received equal pay, they did not have equal opportunity with male colleagues. Surveys and research revealed the concerns they had in common with other women in the workforce – childcare, part-time work, sexual harassment, and the predominance of women in lower occupational grades – but no umbrella organisation was formed. To some extent, the differences between unions and professional groups were historical. They had similar concerns and some organisations on both sides became more militant. But professional women's groups still owed allegiance to their profession rather than to the wider feminist or labour movements, and trade union women's loyalties were as much to the working class as to the feminist movement.

In the 1980s, women's organisations were divided not so much over the issue of pay equity as over the best means to achieve it. The division was often internal. Some thought that voluntary measures should be encouraged, rather than compulsory Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) structures or legislation. Calls for legislation began in earnest in late 1985, when NACEW lobbied unsuccessfully for a ministerial review to examine why the gender gap in pay remained. The Equal Pay Study (1986-87) and the Working Group on Equal Employment Opportunities and Equal Pay (1988) subsequently recommended further legislation. [19] The Arbitration Court's dismissal of the Clerical Workers’ Union pay equity claims in 1986 also lent support to the campaign.

Protest march and banners, 1991

Gil Hanly

Members of the Auckland Working Women’s Resource Centre protest against the passing of the Employment Contracts Act, May Day 1991. The resource centre was established in 1984 to implement the Working Women’s Charter within the trade union movement and to provide resources and support for working women.

The possibility of legislation spurred the formation of a number of groups in the late 1980s. A seminar on pay equity at Victoria University's Centre for Continuing Education prompted the formation in 1986 of the Coalition for Equal Value Equal Pay (CEVEP), in which women unionists and NACEW members predominated. The Auckland Working Women's Resource Centre, Labour Party activists and individual trade unions – particularly those representing high proportions of women and with increasing numbers of women officials, such as the Clerical Workers’ Union in Dunedin – co-ordinated the campaign throughout New Zealand. CEPO and other groups revived in 1987 to oppose the State Sector Bill, fearing that its proposed decentralising of industrial relations in the public service would mean the end of the relatively good conditions for women which had been painstakingly negotiated across the entire public service. These groups then went on to support pay equity. A short-lived victory came in 1990, when the Employment Equity Act was passed, but in November the incoming National government repealed it and closed the Employment Equity Commission. CEPO and CEVEP went into semi-recess. The Employment Contracts Act 1991, which ended national awards and compulsory unionism, raised fears that women's wages and conditions of employment in particular would be undermined.

By the 1990s, most working women were still not organised, although their numbers had swelled the ranks of organised workers since 1936. Women made up 48 per cent of union members; the proportion of women in professional associations was probably about the same. However, class or professional loyalties still seemed to predominate over organisation based on gender; separate women's unions or associations encompassed only a minority of organised working women.

The Employment Contracts Act led to some blurring of the union/association divide. In 1992, when the Clerical Workers’ Union was disestablished, the NZEI took primary and secondary school support staff under its wing. The old pattern of 'working-class' women's unions and 'middle-class' women's professional associations was still discernible, however, in the organisational kaleidoscope which had developed in the latest wave of institution-building. Similarly, sex segregation and unequal opportunity endured in the workplace. While they did, the issue of working women's organisational separatism would not be resolved.

Melanie Nolan


Helen Kelly

Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

Helen Kelly, the first woman to become president (2007–2015) of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, speaking at a Budget day rally at Parliament in May 2011.


The 1990s appeared to be a major turning point in women’s paid work organising. Not only did women make up the majority of union members; by the mid 1990s, nearly half the union presidents were also women. Moreover, by 2005 women and Māori were more likely than men and non-Māori to be union members. [20] Angela Foulkes, vice-president of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU) from 1987 to 1991, became NZCTU Secretary from 1991 to 1999. In 2007, Helen Kelly was elected first female president of the NZCTU; she held this position until 2015, when Rachel Mackintosh became vice-president. [21]

The context to these developments was no less dramatic. The Employment Contracts Act 1991 swept away the industrial relations structures established in 1894: trade union registration, compulsory union membership, and the award system. Unions were amalgamated, and in some cases folded; union density fell from 51 per cent in 1990 to 21.9 per cent in 1999, before increasing to 22.6 per cent in 2002 and hovering around 20 per cent thereafter. [23] This rate was at the lower end of the spectrum internationally; unionism here had experienced collapse. Most analyses indicated that decentralising the collective bargaining process to the enterprise level, with individual employment contracts, particularly disadvantaged New Zealand’s women workers, not least because of the loss of concentrated commitment to equity concomitant with strong centralised government intervention. [24] 

Despite unionism becoming seemingly less strongly associated with male workers, the 186,000 women union members in 2017 (around 58 per cent of the total) continued to be concentrated in particular industries, organisations and unions. [23] However, these were not exclusively female. In 2017 women made up 92 per cent of the nursing workforce, but the New Zealand Nurses Organisation campaigned on behalf of male, female and gender diverse members. Over 98 per cent of early childhood education (ECE) teachers were female, though this became less obvious when the Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa amalgamated with the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) to form NZEI Te Riu Roa in 1994. The successful Prostitutes Collective campaign to decriminalise prostitution was not a ‘women’s campaign’: men or transgender people made up 15 per cent of sex workers, and some feminists were opposed to decriminalisation. None of the 31 unions affiliated with the NZCTU in 2018 referred to women in their titles. Women such as Helen Kelly attained union positions of responsibility not only because of unionism’s diminished power, but also because the movement had become more democratic, activist and membership-based, characteristics sometimes attributed to the 'organising model of unionism' of the 1990s. [25] 

A number of unions continued to have women’s committees. The NZCTU Women’s Council widened its representation with women members from each of the affiliated unions, as well as Te Runanga o nga Kaimahi Māori, i Komiti Pasifika, Out@Work, and StandUp. Unions had taken note of the literature and experience suggesting the positive role and contribution of collective structures for women, that is, having both mainstream and separatist parts. [26] Other groups belatedly formed their first such committees; by the time the Law Society Board formed a Women’s Advisory Panel in 2015, women made up more than 60 per cent of law graduates.

Beyond the union movement

Beyond the union movement, women’s employment-related associations experienced both continuity and change. These included longstanding organisations such as Business and Professional Women and Graduate Women, as well as more recently organised groups such as women lawyers: Auckland Women’s Law Association was formed in 1984, Otago Women’s Law Society in 1986, Wellington Women Lawyers’ Association in 1987 and Canterbury Women’s Legal Association in 1989. The Law Society supported the formation of these organisations, with their objectives of working for equal opportunity and the advancement of women in the study and practice of law.

Other traditional occupation-related sectors underwent a makeover too. The Women’s Division of Federated Farmers’ 1999 name change to Rural Women New Zealand was followed by the formation of Women in Farming groups with a focus on working women, together with Enterprising Rural Women’s Awards for women working in rural industry. A sister group, the Dairy Women's Network, was formed in 1998, with a focus on upskilling women workers and connecting rural businesswomen. By 2015, female students envisaging a career in agriculture outnumbered male students at Lincoln University for the first time.

Professional networks

A third dynamic new aspect of women’s institution-building involving employment interconnectivity and local support was the proliferation of professional networks.  These included the London-based New Zealand businesswomen’s network (NZ Biz Women, founded in 2009) and entrepreneur network (WE Network, founded in 2016). The New Zealand Women in Medicine Facebook page, started in January 2017, had within four months connected 3242 women doctors virtually, with more waiting to join. Facebook-based groups also linked women accountants, architects, leaders, and women in sports media.

Networking groups mushroomed in non-traditional sectors, some organised top-down by larger industry groups. New Zealand’s first National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) began in Wellington in 1996, with strong encouragement from Australasia's first female Professor of Architecture, Helen Tippett, and Architecture+Women was established in 2001. [27] TechWomen was established to inspire and encourage women to enter tech, digital and ICT roles, and, increasingly, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), as well as developing policy and actions for improving diversity in the tech workplace, in association with the broader organisation, NZTech. [28]

Infrastructure New Zealand launched the Women’s Infrastructure Network (WIN) in October 2016 ‘to increase the number of women in leadership roles, grow the visibility of women, and to provide a networking and support group for women in the infrastructure sector’. [29] WIN NZ was connected to the global WIN network, operating in Canada, USA, UK, and Australia; local members were organised into chapters of over 1000 women in Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Wellington, Christchurch, and Otago. It hosted events nationwide, and its Advisory Board undertook a survey on diversity and inclusion in the infrastructure sector in 2017.

Often women could join a range of networks. The Government Women’s Network (GWN), started after meetings of public sector women's networks in late 2014 and 2015, employed a programme director and a part-time co-ordinator. Women made up the majority of the 350,000-strong public sector workforce; the network set out to raise their visibility and presence, and offer tools and channels to provide support for members to drive system-wide change. Groups were ‘formal or informal but … always volunteer and employee-led with their own self-determined arrangements for “management” ’. [30] Some GWN women also belonged to the Public Service Association (PSA) women's network, promoting the interests of women within the PSA. In August 2018 it communicated online with its 3300 members, 7.5 per cent of the 44,000 women PSA members. Employer engagement with these networks was high. For instance, the Wellington Summit on 2 May 2018 was organised by management to bring public-sector women together to facilitate their professional development and networking. 

Common concerns

Some things did not change. In 2016, 86.9 per cent of union members were in full-time employment and 92.1 per cent were in a permanent job. The increased numbers of marginal, part-time workers, sole mothers, and those on lower incomes were less likely to join a union, association or network. In 2017, while the overall employment rate for women of working age was 63 per cent, it was 59.3 per cent for Māori women and 55.3 per cent for Pacific women. The overall unemployment rate for women stood at 4.9 per cent, but it was 11.1 per cent for Māori women and 10.4 per cent for Pacific women. Most networks self-consciously setting out to promote diversity were advocating for gender diversity, rather than race and class diversity.  

At the turn of the twenty-first century, research showed common concerns central to employed New Zealand women: equal pay and pay equity, the predominance of women in lower occupational grades and on the minimum wage, the problems of those in part-time work, the lack of affordable and flexible high-quality childcare facilities, and sexual harassment. [31] Women’s employment groups of all kinds worked together in various coalitions on a stream of campaigns associated with these issues. However, no umbrella organisation formed over them. The Coalition for Equal Value Equal Pay had many women union officials as members, and the National Council of Women had many member organisations with large female memberships, but neither attracted the majority of women’s employment groups.

New Zealand, ranked ninth on the Global Gender Gap Index in 2016, was internationally deemed to have achieved a high rate of progress towards gender parity, especially in the economic realm. Yet this belied women’s disadvantaged position overall, compared with men in the workforce, and the severely unequal position of Māori and Pacific women in particular.  While women’s membership and leadership roles in unions and government continued to strengthen from early 1990s, the male breadwinner model harking back to the 1950s proved remarkably persistent. Despite women’s heavy investment in education, with female graduates outnumbering male, many well-educated, highly productive female employees continued to be treated as secondary earners once they had children.

Meanwhile New Zealand was ‘still a long way … from achieving anything that can really be called equal pay’. [32] Women's pay in New Zealand remained, on average, substantially below that of men. Worse, after stalling between 1990 and 1995 and then narrowing somewhat to 9.1 per cent, the pay gap widened again to 12 per cent in 2016. The gap was 23 per cent for Māori women and almost 28 per cent for Pacific women (compared with all men).

This prompted the Ministry for Women to commission the first research on the gender pay gap since 2003. The first study, in March 2017, found that the overall national gender pay gap had fluctuated around 12 per cent since 2002, and that ‘progress has stalled despite considerable work to reduce the gap’. It concluded that assumptions about women in work were mainly to blame:

‘[T]raditional drivers such as type of work, family responsibilities, education, and age no longer explain the majority of the gender pay gap. In fact, around 80 percent of the gender pay gap is now due to “unexplained” factors.’ [33]

Conscious and unconscious bias was impacting negatively on women’s recruitment and pay advancement, and on gender differences in employment-related choices and behaviours.

Women continued to cluster in a narrow band of female-predominant sectors, and were under-represented in top positions even in those. Women held nearly three-quarters of part-time jobs; they also made up 68 per cent of those on the minimum wage, so pay increases depended heavily on this being raised.

Stuff Limited

After years of struggle, Lower Hutt aged-care worker Kristine Bartlett reflects on the landmark decision by the government in 2016 to give pay equity to about 55,000 of her low-paid, mainly female colleagues.

In 2012 the Service and Food Workers Union initiated a case on behalf of Kristine Bartlett, a caregiver, claiming equal pay for work of equal value under the Equal Pay Act 1972. The Employment Court and the Court of Appeal agreed in early 2016 that care workers’ remuneration was low because the work was mainly done by women, not because it was of intrinsically lower value than jobs done mainly by men, and decided on a pay increase.

Women also predominated in lower-level public service positions. The Gender Pay Principles Working Group was established after the PSA filed a claim against the State Services Commissioner. Made up of unions, state-sector agencies and the Commission, in July 2018 it agreed upon a set of principles to overcome the gender pay deficit in the public service.

New Zealand was among the last Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries to legislate two policies of crucial importance for employed mothers: paid parental leave, and free early-childhood care and education. From 2002 the state funded 14 weeks’ paid parental leave, increased to 18 weeks in April 2016, to 22 weeks in July 2018, and to 26 weeks in 2020, for those who were eligible. In 2004 it introduced Working for Families tax credits, paid to the caregiver in families with a sole parent employed for 20 hours a week, or two parents employed for at least 30 hours a week between them; and from 2007 it provided free early childhood care and education for 20 hours a week. [34]

Women’s employment organisations played a major role in achieving these changes. When Alliance MP Laila Harré launched a campaign for paid parental leave in the 1990s, almost every union and employment association with female membership was involved and made submissions to her 1999 bill. Similarly, a raft of unions and employment associations with women members encouraged the Ministry for Women to conduct research into women being less likely to be employed and/or earning less after becoming mothers.

A different coalition of activists, organisations, researchers, and politicians formed around dealing with sexual harassment within New Zealand workplaces. Under the Human Rights Act 1993 and the Employment Relations Act 2000, workers were protected from ‘any unwelcome or offensive sexual behaviour that is repeated, or is serious enough to have a harmful effect, or which contains an implied or overt promise of preferential treatment or an implied or overt threat of detrimental treatment’. [35] Yet in 2017 the New Zealand Law Society was shocked by revelations of sexual harassment and bullying in the legal profession, beginning with the scandalous treatment of women lawyers and interns at law firm Russell McVeagh. The society’s independent 2018 survey (the first on this issue) indicated that one in three female lawyers had been sexually harassed at work, and more than half of all lawyers had been bullied. As Law Society president Kathryn Beck noted, while ‘work had been done in the area of gender equality and workplace health, it was clear that it was nowhere near enough’. [36]

There were contradictory developments around women’s employment organising in the quarter-century after 1993. By 2018 women had the highest rates of workforce participation ever recorded, with 62.5 per cent of women (1.26 million) in paid work. Although probably fewer than a third of these were organised in a union, association or network, this represented more organised employed women than ever before. Yet despite a surge in women’s organising and leadership, a wave of research on the continuing, widespread employment problems faced by women, and an unprecedented number of government enquiries, gender inequity and detrimental bias clearly persisted across the workforce.

Melanie Nolan


[1] The 1881 census gave the following female employment figures: 11,972 domestic servants, 3658 dressmakers, 1548 teachers, 1119 waitresses/hotel workers, 534 housekeepers/maids, 493 washerwomen, 408 nurses, 476 governesses, 298 machinists, 237 shop assistants. Between 1874 and 1896, the proportion of women in paid employment rose from 11.1 per cent to 16 per cent.

[2] Report of the Royal Commission Appointed to Inquire Into the Working of The Employment of Females Acts, AJHR, 1878, 2, H-2, p. 2.

[3] William Pember Reeves, Evening Post, 15 March 1893.

[4] L.R. Strong, Comment on the petition by the Women Teachers’ Association, October 1928, Department of Education files, Archives New zealand, Wellington.

[5] National Council of Women of New Zealand Bulletin, Vol. 1 No. 2, August 1928.

[6] McLeod, 1978, pp. 85–89.

[7] Working Woman, Vol. 3 No. 8, June 1936, p. 1.

[8] Gail Reekie, 'War, Sexuality and Feminism: Perth Women's Organisations, 1938–1945', Historical Studies, October 1985, pp. 576–78.

[9] Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, Dominion executive committee meeting minutes, 1 August 1940, ATL.

[10] Ellen Carol DuBois, 'Woman Suffrage and the Left: An International Socialist-Feminist Perspective', New Left Review, No. 186, April 1991, p. 43.

[11] Editorial, Kai Tiaki, Vol. 2 No. 3, July 1909, p. 77.

[12] Miss Donner to Miss Young, 18 June 1942, New Zealand Nurses' Association records, ATL.

[13] Dominion, 25 June 1948.

[14] Minutes of Meeting of Joint Steering Committee (BPW/FUW), 30 November 1964, Joint Committee on Women and Employment papers, ATL.

[15] Joint Committee on Women and Employment papers, ATL.

[16] Public Service Journal, 15 May 1914, p.2.

[17] The vote was 265,463 for, 265,187 against. Inaugural NZCTU Policy Conference Papers, Therese O'Connell papers, ATL.

[18] Sarr, 1992.

[19] Towards employment equity: report of the working group on equal employment opportunities and equal pay, Government Printer, Wellington, 1988.

[20] NZCTU, 1995, p. 3; Boyd, 1997; Haynes and Macky, 2005.

[21] Kelly resigned due to cancer in 2015, and died in October 2016, aged 52.

[22] See A. Bollard and R. Buckle (eds), Economic liberalisation in New Zealand (Wellington: Allen and Unwin/Port Nicholson Press, Wellington, 1987; Jane Kelsey, The New Zealand experiment: a world model for structural adjustment, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 1997.

[23] Jelle Visser, ‘Union Membership Statistics in 24 Countries’, Monthly Labor Review, January 2006, p. 38. Some data is estimated; the NZ Register of Unions had collected data on unions, membership, gender breakdown, etc., but this stopped after the Employment Contracts Act 1991.

[24] Hammond and Harbridge, 1995; W. Larner, 'Women and Enterprise Bargaining: The New Zealand Experience of Labour Market Deregulation’, Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 37, 1995, pp. 359–76.

[25] See NZCTU, 1995; Oxenbridge, 1998; Nolan and Ryan, 2003.

[26] Parker and Douglas, 2010.

[27] See NAWIC website: http://www.nawic.org.nz/. Founded by Texan women in 1952, NAWIC grew into an international organisation. Tippett was honoured with an annual NAWIC award in her name for achievement in advancing the interests of women in the construction industry. Victoria Quade, personal communication, 2018.

[28] See Techwomen website: https://techwomen.nz/

[29] See Women’s Infrastucture Network NZ: https://www.infrastructure.org.nz/WIN

[30] Government Women’s Network, ‘How GWN operates’, https://www.gwn.govt.nz/our-work/ (Accessed 21 August 2018.

[31] NZCTU, The woman’s agenda, NZCTU, Wellington, 1997.

[32] Bryan Gould, ‘Fair pay fight part of wider war for respect’, New Zealand Herald, 2 March 2016.

[33] Pacheco et al., 2017, p. 4.

[34] See Ravenswood, 2008.

[35] Human Rights Commission, Sexual harassment guide, HRC, Wellington, 2010, p. 3.

[36] ‘New Zealand Law Society “shocked” at scale of sexual harassment and bullying’, New Zealand Herald, 4 June 2018, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12005235. In 2018, following Kathryn Beck, Tiana Epati became the second woman, the youngest person, and the first of Pacific descent to be appointed Law Society president.

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