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Where once we led, New Zealand has fallen back in gender equality

The Dominion Post - 13 June 2012

New Zealanders can be proud that our country has led the world in championing women's rights. In 1873 New Zealand passed the Employment of Females Act, which regulated the working conditions for women in workrooms and factories, forbidding night work and limiting work to eight hours a day. In 1893 we became the first country in the world to give women the right to vote. By 2001 we could boast that the positions of governor-general, prime minister, leader of the opposition, chief justice, and chief executive officer of our largest company were all held by women.

Things have not stayed this way. Today only the position of chief justice is still held by a woman. A recent Grant Thornton survey reveals that only 5 per cent of CEO roles are held by women, and 65 per cent of companies do not even have women on their boards. So how far have we really come?

A recent case suggests not far enough.

Veronica Kloeten was a senior beauty therapist at Combined Tanning Supplies Ltd. One night while at dinner at her manager Ms Wright's home, Kloeten announced she was pregnant. 

When they were next at work Wright asked Kloeten what her plans were. Kloeten said she intended to take three months' maternity leave over summer. Wright did not take the news well.

Wright told Kloeten that because of the business cost related to maternity leave there wouldn't be any job for her to return to. She then made matters worse by saying that clients would not want to have services provided by a pregnant woman as they would find it disgusting and repulsive.

Soon afterwards a family member drew Kloeten's attention to a post made by Wright on Facebook: "A catastrophic event is watching everything you've worked for, your entire networth, the thing that defines you as who you are & the hope & the dreams you had all gone."

The next day after the last client left, Wright locked the door and berated Kloeten for causing problems to her business. Kloeten became frightened that she would be physically assaulted. She grabbed her possessions and made her escape by pushing past Wright to get to the door.

A few days later Wright dismissed Kloeten for serious misconduct.

The Employment Relations Authority found there to be no substantive justification for finding Kloeten had committed serious misconduct. In addition, it found that the employer had departed so far from the basic requirements of procedural fairness as to render the dismissal of Kloeten unjustifiable.

The authority determined that Kloeten had been unjustifiably disadvantaged in her employment because of her pregnancy. Ad Feedback It also found that Ms Wright's treatment of Kloeten constituted bullying and harassment. In the end Kloeten was awarded $1500 for legal costs, $3000 for hurt and humiliation, $6423.48 for loss of a benefit, and $16,875 for lost wages.

This is not an isolated case. Many women are likely to encounter challenges at work in relation to maternity leave and discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status or family status. Any lasting change must involve employers taking leadership.

One catalyst for change could be gender reporting. Last week former prime minister Jenny Shipley, chair of the Global Women organisation, called for the New Zealand Stock Exchange to follow Australia's lead and require publicly listed companies to report on the gender balance at board level.

Reporting would include businesses outlining strategies to bring about change in gender balance. Significantly, within two years of introducing mandatory gender reporting, Australia has seen a substantial increase in the percentage of its women directors.

Gender reporting is geared toward encouraging businesses to realise the capability of all their people. Shipley claims that boards with greater gender balance fare better than their rivals, especially through these uncertain economic times.

Shipley and Global Women seem to be arguing beyond equality. They are not interested in a quota system or simply making up the numbers, but in New Zealand businesses broadening their capabilities by harnessing the full potential of their people.

The demands of Global Women highlight that if New Zealand is to be once more at the forefront of championing change, employers will need a plan to help us get there.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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