Our Stories Prue Hyman

Let’s start with how you got into feminism—what were the things, ideas or experiences that started you on your own journey into feminism?

I was in a middle class family, Jewish, and therefore I think I was always probably a bit social-justice oriented. I feel like I grew up knowing about the injustice of Nazism from a very early age. I think our family were always fairly left, and fairly pro-social justice. So I think there was always that naturally.I went to a pretty posh school, a day school called St. Pauls, but a private school. I think it was a good enough school that even though you were academically privileged you also had all the issues brought up, not so much feminism in those days. I was at school in the 1950s, which was pretty early on for second-wave feminism. That’s supposed to be the ‘quiet period’ for feminism, even though feminism never died at any stage. From the early beginnings, it had its louder periods and its softer periods. I studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford and that a lovely broad education. I never really knew much about feminism until I came to New Zealand probably, which was when I was about 25, right at the end of the 1960s, which was still pretty early. It was really not until the seventies that I gradually got attuned to getting into feminism. A bit later I’d met antiracism and all the other ism-s. It was just gradual I guess, over the next five years or so that I found my way a bit, and as feminism got going and one had more to read about it, I wouldn’t say I was terribly original, but I started realising about gender gaps and about how the whole of economic theory, like everything else had gender biases in it. So gradually through the seventies that was the way my work took me. I taught orthodox economics [at Victoria University], but I always raised the issues quietly at the same time. And gradually, I started doing my own research work into feminist economics. 

For those who may not know about feminist economics, how would you describe that?

I’d simply describe it parallel with any other feminist activity. That one looks at how economics, and in particular economic theories, systems and policies contain systematic gender biases. Which don’t have to be deliberate, but they’ve come in. After all, the economy and all parts of it tended to be operated and run by wealthy, middle class white men. And naturally their way of looking at the world was the way they analysed it. So you can delve into those theories and systems and policies, for example how only work is paid work and all the unpaid work in which paid work rests is neglected, ignored, doesn’t give resources to the mainly women who do it, and so on. So it’s just getting into all that sort of thing. 

And was this a global movement that was happening at the time, or was this something that you really started?

Yes, it was global. I had a sabbatical leave in 1981 or thereabouts, in America, and that’s where I got into particularly the equal pay side of things, the comparable worth, as it was called in America in that time. Pay equity, equal pay for work of equal value, those concepts were starting to get talked about in feminist economic circles, and there was a lot of work going on in those areas and I brought that back here. It wasn’t new here, I mean the 1972 Equal Pay Act does in fact incorporate the ideas of equal pay for work of equal value, which is essentially that it’s not just equal pay for identical work (and just getting that was a big advance in 1972), but also the fact that female-dominated work tends to be undervalued because it’s seen as ‘women’s work’, natural to women. Things like manual dexterity and doing accurately repetitive work, and caring work, and all that stuff is seen to natural to women. It doesn’t have to be valued financially! Whereas any men’s work, skills of heavy lifting in manual industries, or whether it’s the professional ones, are much more valued. So that’s what equal pay for work of equal value is all about. And that was in fact incorporated in the 1972 Equal Pay Act, which was before I got involved in New Zealand. But it was never really taken advantage of in that act, and it was a bit obscure the way it was phrased. But it’s still going—it’s still that [Equal Pay Act 1972] under which the latest Kristine Bartlett v Terranova case was taken. And the courts reiterated that it was still alive for equal pay for work of equal value cases in female dominated work, and that you could make comparisons outside the workplace if there weren’t suitable ones to make in the workplace. Having a few men who were in the same job, and were equally underpaid, because it wasn’t women’s work, wasn’t a justification to employers. The whole area needs to be reconsidered. 

You mentioned that the 1972 Act which is obviously still the one where we’re saying “come on, it’s time to pay us what we’re worth,” when that act was passed, do you remember what that kind of feeling was at that time?

Well I’d only been in New Zealand a very short time at that point, and I wasn’t heavily involved until the later 1970s. But certainly there was a sigh of relief, as there tends to be when these things happen. We’ve got it. It was implemented over five years gradually by 1977. By 1977 you couldn’t have separate scales for men and women, you had to have the same scales if it was the same job. And I think everybody thought, ‘good, we’ve done this, tick.’ We hadn’t even got statistics on men and women’s pay until 1972, that was part of the commission of inquiry in 1971 that led to the Equal Pay Act. They said we must collect the data, and that was starting to happen. And there was quite some significant narrowing of the gap between ‘72 and ‘77, as there should have been. Quite right too. But by about the early eighties, people were saying ‘hey, we did something in that period, but nothing much seems to have happened since, and there’s still a pretty big gap. Have we actually done it?’ So by the early eighties, the women’s movement and women in unions were starting to say ‘we don’t think we’ve done it all yet.’ And the equal value stuff clearly had not been done. At that point the unions were pretty heavily male-dominated, so they didn’t care much. And if they did they didn’t understand it. Whereas the employers were more geared up on how to resist it. So it started to be realised that ‘hey, we’ve still got some way to go, we haven’t actually accomplished it all.’ 

After the momentum of the Equal Pay Act 1972 and throughout the eighties, what did the nineties mean for the Equal Pay movement?

Through the 90s while National were in power, very little happened. They made some progress on equal employment opportunity and instituted a private sector trust, and there was stuff to try and encourage big firms to implement EEO and so on. And I won’t say nothing happened, certainly women were starting to get up career ladders, and were getting more education and so on, so the gender pay gap, just the average difference between men and women’s pay, did go on narrowing a little bit, but it was still a substantial gap. It was mainly women getting more education and getting up the hierarchy that was the continued narrowing. There was nothing very much benefitting the women at the bottom, in the basic factory jobs, retail jobs, caring jobs and so on. And men in those jobs as well. Differentials started to increase under National. National brought in the Employment Contracts Act, which reduced unionism substantially, reduced collective bargaining substantially, reduced even your ability to know what other people were paid. So how the heck can you discover whether you’ve got equal pay if you don’t know what other people are paid? All that was going on during the nineties, meaning that women at the bottom in particular were doing badly. Women at the top were starting to do all right, and the gaps between different groups of women, and the class and ethnicities, because Maori, Pasifika and refugee women were overrepresented in the bottom occupations by pay... [these positions] were always regarded as being unskilled, but I’m very very dubious of using ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ work terms. There’s some very interesting work being done that shows there’s no such thing, hardly as unskilled work. People start talking about their jobs and there’s a lot to them. And certainly some jobs need more training than others, and time, or detail, and I won’t argue (except in my most radical days) that every job should be paid the same. But I certainly think the differentials are far, far wider than productivity really justifies at the moment. And women lose out on that, and that happened throughout the nineties through the National government’s general labour market policies. And it’s a fact I think, that isn’t recognised enough that it’s general policies in the economic and labour market policies that is more influential on how women are paid than the very specific things that are done to try and improve the position of women. Now, I’m absolutely in favour of doing those things, but I think you’ve got to recognise the broader picture which is why I always fight for things like the minimum wage and the living wage, as well as the specific pay equity. Because that’s aimed at the bottom, and it’s the female jobs that are at the bottom and are grossly underpaid. 

What did you think of the women’s marches recently? What are your thoughts on that?

Oh, I’m always thrilled when people will get up and get out and worry about what’s going on in the world. I’m not sure I think enough people understand what they’re marching about, but I think it’s great that it happened, but it’s got to be followed up! The occupy movement was terrific, but it just vanished into thin air. Just marching does a little, it scares the politicians, but unless they see follow-up, unless we actually get rid of apathy and get out there and study what we do want, and work for it, we get nowhere. We still are voting in governments that are doing much the same as in the past. I just don’t think people really have a grasp of what’s going on in the world. And that’s partly the media, who owns the media? Who produces what you read? You can find alternative voices on the web, but you’ve got to look for them and know where to look for them. An awful lot of people just don’t have the time to do that, they’re just trying to keep body and soul together.

Just marching does a little, it scares the politicians, but unless they see follow-up, unless we actually get rid of apathy and get out there and study what we do want, and work for it, we get nowhere.