Susan St John: Running gender equity lens over social policies, childbirth, women’s work

OPINION:

Many of us were brought up on the myth of egalitarianism and the superiority of New Zealand’s treatment of women. After all, weren’t we the first country to give women the vote?

We have pay equity legislation, women in top jobs, a stunningly competent female prime minister, and have almost achieved gender balance in parliament. NZ is the best place is the world to bring up children and so on.

But progress is not a once-off get it right for all time. Each generation must make sure that social policy continues to evolve with the evolution of human understandings re gender, ethnicity and child poverty.

We think we have a world-leading, no-fault ACC scheme that many other countries would love to have, a universal, flat-rate NZ Superannuation that is genuinely good for women, and a KiwiSaver for all over the age of 18 years, not just perks for men in company tax-subsidised pension schemes.

But rosy utopia is far from the actual reality that many women experience. ACC is the latest example to be exposed for its latent sexism and racism.

A conference in Wellington put on by the ACC-futures Group onApril 30 discussed how the tentacles of neoliberalism dragged ACC away from its initial conception based on the visionary conception of Owen Woodhouse in the late 1960s, to become a dressed-up private insurance scheme. Like private insurance, there are fine line rules about what qualifies and what doesn’t; what is valued and what is not.

In this scheme, gender-blinkered policies unwittingly reflect the male model of the centrality of paid work of a certain traditional kind and elevates the market as the arbiter of all that is good. A workshop on gender run by Dawn Duncan discussed how women experience work-related injuries that are far more likely to be rejected, largely because they are from industries where the incapacity is less obvious than a single physical accident.

But the problem runs even deeper: the most productive work that women do and the most dangerous is the work of procreation. But it is not recognised as “work” as it is unpaid. Insurance rules are made around which injuries from childbirth qualify as accidents: they must be treatment-related.

“Most perineal tears are not caused by treatment but by the birthing process. This includes perineal tears occurring after a clinically indicated and appropriately performed mediolateral episiotomy, where the perineal tearing reflects the challenges of a difficult birth. Therefore, ACC is not able to cover these injuries.”

Over time, more perineal tear claims have been rejected as a male board rules that the birthing baby is part of the mother and can’t be regarded as a separate force causing the tear.

Treatment for rejected claims are unacceptably delayed in the public health system causing much distress and incapacity. Tough news if you have a “difficult childbirth”: not much hope of the application of the no-fault principle for you. It is all part of the “natural process of childbirth”.

Then there is the monetary compensation – good for some. Income-related compensation may have been a wonderful innovation and a legitimate part of the no-fault concept, but a gender lens reveals that far less is paid to women who usually spend time of out the workforce in unpaid caregiving roles that are so vital for the health of the economy.

The latest ACC aide memoire “ACC’s delivery to priority populations: Part 1- Women” shows that pre-Covid there were about 60,000 male and 30,000 female claims for earnings-related compensation with women receiving weekly compensation at a little over half the rate of men. We can infer from this that of the total earnings-related payouts, around 80 per cent were to males.

A high-earning male can injure himself in a drunken brawl or reckless behaviour on the road or rugby field and get full ACC including up to $2069 gross per week of earning-related compensation. He may not be employed in a particularly vital social service. A woman may be badly injured by the same male who bowls her over on his electric scooter as she travels to her extremely socially valuable but unpaid caregiving duties. She will be covered for treatment under ACC but might get at best a supported living payment of a taxable $287 per week, or none at all if her husband is earning.

Earnings-related compensation is designed for those in full time work, the traditional male career path. Women very often are in part time work and qualify for little under ACC.

ACC provides a potential loss earnings payment to a child under 18 who is seriously injured that is more generous than a welfare payment. This rightly reflects that welfare is poor compensation for a lifetime of not being able to earn.

Yet many women are out of the workforce in their 20s and 30s in caregiving roles. If they are seriously injured in this time there is no loss of potential earnings considered for them.

Now let’s apply a gender lens to KiwiSaver. In many families, a woman’s KiwiSaver is expendable in times of hardship or is swallowed up in the deposit for a home. It can take a long time to recover, if at all, from such raiding of her pension pot.

When she is at home, unpaid, it is more than likely that she is not contributing to her KiwiSaver at all and gets no benefit from the Government contribution of $521 a year.

When she is in paid work it is often part-time and if she can’t afford to be in KiwiSaver she is effectively paid 3 per cent less than her male counterparts and misses out on government contributions too.

Worse still, policy design is based on the male model of a working life between the ages 18-65. A women with children is likely to receive far less in total employer subsidies and government contributions between these ages and to receive any top-ups later than men and so fail to fully benefit from the magic of compounding.

Now you can rightly say that the position described here is also that experienced by many men who face precarious work in the 21st century. The answer is that if we get policies right for women, then men will benefit too.

• Associate Professor Susan St John is with the Faculty of Business and Economics atUniversity of Auckland.

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