OPINION: BNZ chief economist Tony Alexander says the cost of living – and your quality of life – depends on what individual people need to spend their money on to feel good. But some have limited – or no – choice and the fact that nurses and teachers are under-valued is not about personal preference, it’s about gender inequality.
Gender inequality is a society wide issue, but we often treat it as an individual issue that individuals can solve. I don’t believe it’s about personal preference at all – it’s about structural and social norms. Gender inequality relies on traditional and out-dated gender roles. Most of the time, we’re given two options – you’re either a man or a woman. And being a man or a woman comes with these stereotypes about being a “real man” or a “real woman”. For women, these stereotypes are often based around being caring and looking after others. This can cause roles such as caregiving, work, early childhood education, social work and nursing to be considered to be of less value.
Of course, we see these stereotypes play out in the way some occupations are gendered. Results from our recent Gender Attitudes Survey show that 41% of New Zealanders think being a builder is more suited to men. Meanwhile, 24% think that being a nurse is more suited to women.
But we need our nurses and our teachers to be valued properly, and fairly. Roles like these require lengthy professional training and a wide range of competencies and are absolutely essential for a healthy, thriving society. We need to recognise the low pay in these roles for what it is – an undervaluing of women.
Professor Paul Dalziel, Lincoln University Economy Professor says that “teachers and nurses are ordinary New Zealand professionals with the same preferences as other New Zealanders. They have spent years in education in the expectation of being able to own a home that is dry and warm and being able to raise their own children well.”
“If the salaries of nurses and teachers do not support these reasonable expectations, then fewer people will choose these professions. This would be bad for New Zealand. If we make these professions unattractive to talented people, the whole country will feel the impact. We have to invest well in the professional staff of our education and health institutions” says Dalziel.
Women in these roles aren’t choosing to have a lower quality of life, especially if they are the sole caregiver. They have a lower quality of life due to systematic inequality. If we don’t start valuing these roles properly, we will lose people in these professions who are contributing to a better New Zealand. After all, no matter how much people are committed to their profession, there is only so much under-valuing they can take before they move on.