Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

Gender Implications of the Right to Request Flexible Working Arrangements: Raising Pigs and Children in New Zealand1

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

Gender Implications of the Right to Request Flexible Working Arrangements: Raising Pigs and Children in New Zealand1

Article excerpt

New Zealand prides itself on being a global leader in gender equality, based on being the first country to have allowed women to vote and on having had and currently having women in high public positions, such as the Governor-General, Prime Minister and Chief Justice. New Zealand also frequently scores high on various international gender equality indexes and reports.2 In addition, a number indicator suggests that, overall, there is compatibility between work and family life in New Zealand. Female participation in the labour market is one of the highest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).3 Women's employment rates have increased steadily over the years in New Zealand. In 1976, only 40 per cent of mothers were in employment, while, in 2006, it was 66 per cent.4 Women's labour force participation in New Zealand currently sits at 62.3 per cent.5 Unlike many other OECD countries, New Zealand does not struggle with low fertility rates which, at replacement level,6 are "...second to none of the industrialised countries".7

Despite those select achievements, women in New Zealand are still underpaid, under-represented in positions of power or economic standing, and over-represented in atypical and precarious employment.8 Women's labour force participation is still lower than that of men's with 12 percentage points difference in 2011.9 One of the main causes is the fact that women are still responsible for the majority of the unpaid work in the household and, in particular, they remain the main caregiver for children, the elderly and the disabled. While women's participation in paid employment has increased drastically over the past decades, men have not changed their work-to-care ratio enough to fill the gap. Not surprisingly, women appear to be struggling with work-life conflicts10 more often than men.

As a growing number of women undertake paid employment, and still continue to do most of the unpaid care as part of raising children,11 issues around reconciling work and family life have enjoyed a great increase in scholarly attention recently in New Zealand.12 The study of work-life balance started from a gender perspective. However, the issue of work-life balance is evolving in New Zealand, where concerns relating to women in the workforce appear to be ebbing. The concept of flexible work has come to the forefront of New Zealand employment law, not merely as a way to solve work-family conflict but as a tool for employers to adapt quickly and more adequately to the globalised market competition.

In the 1980s, the New Zealand labour market underwent change to become "...particularly fluid and flexible".13 In this context, work-life balance, as a subject in legislation, can be traced back to the Equal Opportunities Trust's first Work and Life awards in 1999. It was, then, added to the Labour Party's policy mandate in 2002.14 In 2003, the government, led by the Labour Party, initiated work-life balance projects underpinned by a decontextualisation of the employer/employee relationship and a gradual deconstruction of the traditional public/private dichotomy.15 Employers and employees were treated as individuals who have to negotiate their own unique relationship on a case-by-case basis, ignoring the social milieu and environment that actively shape the terms of employment choices. This presumption of endless choice continues to prevail in today's society (and employment law), although the reality of the labour market (in particular for women) presents only a restricted set of options.16 This, therefore, puts added pressure on mothers or employees with care responsibilities. It means that for employees with caregiving obligations, it can be difficult and challenging to remain or to thrive in the paid labour market. Because of women's growing responsibilities in the labour force, unpaid care work in the private sphere has also become more difficult to be navigated sufficiently by individuals. …

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