• 04 499 5534
  • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Does the law do enough to protect women and minorities?

International Women’s Day was celebrated throughout the world on March 8.

DiscriminationOne day before, one of the better-known women in the Western World, Meghan Markle, complained about discrimination she faces because of her race, because she is an outsider and, I suspect, because she is a woman. She was open about the mental health problems which accompanied the pressures she was under, particularly racist attacks by the Right-wing British media.

And then we have Piers Morgan, appointed by Rupert Murdoch to be editor of the infamous News of the World British newspaper, which was subsequently shut down over a scandal. Morgan did not believe a word Markle said and thought the timing of the interview with Oprah disgraceful. He ended up having a row with his co-host on the ITV program and walked off.

He defended his conduct, claiming he was exercising his right to free speech.

Yet again, the rights and treatment of women have become the subject of debate. In the face of relentless and blatant attacks against one woman, there are those who deny the victim has been affected and claim she is lying. Has the law done enough to protect women and minorities?

In New Zealand, first and foremost, we have our Human Rights Act that prohibits discrimination on several grounds, which include colour, race and ethnic or national origin.

We have legislation to bring about equal pay.

We also have laws that now go one step further and grant equal pay for work of equal value. This means that if a person works in an industry where, say, almost all workers are women (such as the aged care industry), then the fact that the one or two men in the industry receive the same pay as all the women does not go far enough. The pay for everyone is brought down by the fact that the overwhelming number of workers are women, so the argument goes.

There is the need to look for an industry dominated by men that has work of equal value and get parity with that. Our legislation was amended following a successful court case on this issue to facilitate claims of this nature.

Despite progressive laws on these matters, we can see attitudes are still catching up. Complaints often provoke a strong emotional reaction from those who attempt to downplay the problem. One only need look at Morgan’s overreaction to Markle’s complaints, which he justified in the name of freedom of speech.

But the problem is not isolated to the conduct of a few individuals. A recent survey of 1000 women conducted by American company Tinypulse showed that 67 per cent more women than men reported feeling their workplace was a threatening work environment. While the study was conducted in the United States, the lesson can still apply to New Zealand. Clearly there is still a mismatch between what people consider acceptable conduct.

Where conduct of discrimination or sexual harassment occurs, the perpetrators are often surprised to discover their conduct was problematic and attempt to downplay it. When considered in isolation, often the conduct can be dismissed as trivial. But when repeated, these actions can deeply impact a person.

A 2004 claim brought by a Northland waitress heard in the Human Rights Review Tribunal case best demonstrates this. The waitress was regularly subjected to comments from her manager that she “looked lovely tonight and always looks lovely”, and that “he looked forward to the nights she came in to work”.

He regularly made comments about her clothing. Worse still, he would look at her in a sexualised way, would stand uncomfortably close to her, and would persist in touching her arm. He also claimed at one point she had been promiscuous with guests, and that she would prefer to have sex with him over another person.

The defendant never appeared at the hearing to explain or refute the allegations. However, the nature of the conduct suggests a person who was careless as to how his conduct would impact his colleague.

The impact on the waitress, however, was significant. She reported feeling constantly annoyed and angry at work and was always on her guard around the defendant. She eventually started having trouble sleeping, and over time became depressed and had to take time off for stress.

Given conduct like this can have such a significant impact on a person, it is necessary to speak up often and early to prevent serious harm from occurring.

International Women's Day has come around and we have been reminded there is still a long way to go to achieve equal treatment of women. The day was marked with the pain of Markle, who spoke out about the discrimination and consequent pain she suffered. Her complaints were met by Morgan, a powerful white male, displaying extreme intolerance.

With these events we should reflect on our own efforts in New Zealand.