In the 19th century the women who migrated to New Zealand came as wives of migrants, potential wives, or domestic servants. From the time of European colonisation until 1968 – apart from brief periods during the First World War, the 1918 influenza pandemic and the Second World War – there were more men than women in the total New Zealand population.
Immediately after the Second World War most working-age men and women in New Zealand lived as married couples and raised children. Most men worked full-time, while women stayed at home to look after children.
By the early 2000s women were far more strongly represented in the workforce. In 1945 only about a quarter of the total workforce were women. By 1986 that had grown to 41%; by 2006 it was 47%.
Which women work?
The most important factors affecting New Zealand women’s participation in the workforce are:
- their level of qualifications
- whether they have children and, if so, the age of their children
- whether or not they are single parents.
In the early 2000s women with young children had relatively low workforce participation rates, but many returned to the workforce as their children grew older. The percentage of solo mothers who work had increased significantly, but their employment rate remained low compared to women in many other countries. Women with husbands or partners were much more likely to be employed. As the number of couples who both work increased, balancing work with home life has become an issue for both women and men.
In the early 2000s government policy was to increase the number of women in paid work through the introduction of paid parental leave and expansion of early childhood and primary education. In turn, the growth of childcare brings more women into the workforce, since almost all childcare workers are female.
Gender in the workforce
As the proportion of working women increased, the proportion of men in paid work declined, from 90% of the total workforce in 1956 to 73% in early 2008. That downward trend was due to social changes such as a higher school-leaving age, more participation in full-time tertiary education and larger numbers of older men leaving the workforce.
The changes in the major industries also affected the overall gender balance of the workforce. The decline in employment in agriculture and manufacturing had a disproportionate impact on men, as these were male-dominated industries. In 2006 men still formed two-thirds of the agricultural workforce and 71% of manufacturing. In contrast, they were only 28% of the education workforce and just 17% of the health workforce. A particularly male-dominated industry is construction – 87% of this workforce was male in 2006.