Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister. (Photographer: Mark Coote/Bloomberg)

World's Youngest Female Leader Targets Equal Pay for Women

(Bloomberg) -- The first country to give women the vote has another world-leading ambition: closing the gender pay gap.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the world’s youngest female leader, says her government aims to achieve pay equity for women in the public service within four years as a catalyst for widespread change. More than 120 years after her nation granted universal suffrage, Ardern hopes it can again be a flag-bearer for equal rights.

“If New Zealand is seen as a champion of issues around gender pay gap and pay equity, I would be proud of that,” Ardern, 37, said in an interview Tuesday in Wellington. “I know, though, that we will only be seen as a world leader if we’re able to make inroads ourselves.”

New Zealand ranked ninth out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2017, well ahead of neighboring Australia, which placed 35th. While its pay gap has dropped to 9.4 percent this year from 16.2 percent in 1998, according to Statistics New Zealand data, the Ministry for Women says progress on closing it has stalled in the last decade.

World's Youngest Female Leader Targets Equal Pay for Women

Ardern’s Labour government swept to power last month on a pledge to put a human face on capitalism by intervening to address social failures, including the treatment of women in the workplace. Sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein may have triggered a global discussion about the difficulties women face, but Ardern said the next step is to achieve real change.

“I think these global conversations are incredibly important, but they’re only precursors to what needs to follow, and that is a change in culture, a change in behavior,” she said. “There is a need for conversations with young people in particular around issues of consent, healthy relationships.”

Since giving women the vote in 1893, New Zealand has been something of a trailblazer in terms of equal rights. The country’s gender pay gap is half the U.K.’s 18 percent, Ardern is the country’s third female prime minister, and the Governor General and Chief Justice are also women. 

But there is only one female chief executive officer among the 50 companies on New Zealand’s benchmark stock index, and even though the nation ranks relatively highly on the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index, it has slipped from fifth place in 2009.

‘Going Backwards’

“We’re going backwards,” said National Council of Women President Vanisa Dhiru. “In New Zealand we like to think we’re pretty equal -- we were the first country to give women the vote after all -- but we’re not.”

The government needs to make it easier for people to make claims for equal pay through new legislation and additional resources, particularly for those at the lower end of female-dominated occupations, Dhiru said.

Ardern, who cites inequality as one of the reasons she entered politics, said she will lead “an active government” that “will intervene where there are failures.”

She said closing the gender pay gap among the 46,000 core public service workers will send a strong signal to the private sector to follow suit. 

“In 2017, we cannot continue to send a message to young women that they can expect to be paid 10 percent less simply for their gender,” Ardern said. “That is not a message that can continue.”

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.