‘Stuck in the dark ages’: Men hold 59% of the highest-paid jobs in government

Women are significantly outnumbered by men in the highest-paid jobs across government, an investigation into the gender gap at the top of the public service found.

Some departments – including the Treasury, the New Zealand Customs Service and a trio of universities – are still so skewed at the top that only one or two women feature among their 10 highest earners, despite promises by Labour to improve the gender balance in the public sector’s upper ranks.

The Weekend Herald obtained data under the Official Information Act on the gender split among the 10 highest-paid individuals below chief executive level at 43 publicly-owned bodies, including almost all government departments and the entire university sector.

The sample provides a stark snapshot of the uneven progress being made on pay equality at the highest levels of government. It reveals that men still occupied 59 per cent of the plum jobs across the agencies that provided figures at the end of 2019, according to the Herald’s analysis.

The Government has trumpeted the increasing number of women being appointed to run departments and agencies – around half of public sector chief executives are now women – as a sign of improving gender equality in the public sector, but these figures suggest that beneath the chief executive level there is still a lot of work to be done to achieve parity.

The findings are alarming, said the Public Service Association’s national secretary Kerry Davies, and shows a disconnect between executive suites and public sector workforces and the wider public.

“It’s concerning when an organisation looks very different at the top compared to how it looks on the frontline,” Davies said. “Most public servants are women. If a government agency has almost no women in senior roles, that agency is stuck in the dark ages.”

The least equal department, according to this data, is the Treasury, where key personnel earn an average of $342,000 a year. Nine of its highest-paid individuals below the chief executive were men. A spokesperson said that recent hirings meant its seven-strong executive team now featured three women.

Also heavily skewed were the Customs Service and Otago, Lincoln and Waikato universities, where they reported just two women among their 10 highest earners. Annual reports for these organisations suggest these senior managers were being paid on average around $273,000 a year.

Not all departments are male-dominated: The Ministry for Women has eight women among its 10 highest earners, and the Ministry of Education reported seven.

The Weekend Herald requested the figures following a two-year battle with TVNZ about its gender imbalance. Last year, the broadcaster was forced to admit that there was a $44,000 gap in pay between men and women among its top on-air personalities.

A ruling in the Weekend Herald‘s favour by the Ombudsman, in that case, meant there was a precedent under the Official Information Act to request similar information about gender bias from 43 other publicly-owned bodies. The data provides a wider snapshot of the gender split at the top of the public service at the end of 2019.

Government employer the Public Service Commission (PSC) has prioritised tackling the gender pay gap. Last year it published a progress report, based on data overlapping with the Weekend Herald survey, which showed the overall gap had declined from 18.6 per cent in 2000 and now stands at 9.6 per cent.

The report portrayed a positive view of progress but did not detail the lack of movement in several agencies. The document praised the work of Customs and Treasury on this area as exemplary, despite the Weekend Herald data indicating there is a stark gender imbalance at the top of those organisations.

Peter Hughes, the PSC Commissioner, and the Minister for Women, Jan Tinetti, were said to be unavailable for interviews when approached by the Weekend Herald this week.

In a written statement, Hughes said: “We have made considerable progress for women in the public service in the last three years. We have more women in leadership roles than ever before and the gender pay gap continues to close. But the job is not finished. We know there is more work to do and we’re doing it.

“There will always be leaders and laggers but I am satisfied with the overall rate of progress so far.

“Gender imbalance in leadership is one driver of an agency’s gender pay gap, so I expect that this will be a focus area for Customs and Treasury,” Hughes added.

Tinetti said in a statement: “Gender equity matters now more than ever.” She added that she was focused on addressing vulnerabilities in women’s employment exposed by shocks to the labour market caused by Covid.

MP Jan Logie, the Green Party spokesperson for women, praised the Herald investigation and said “it does point to the need to look below the broad level data to get into some of those specifics”. She called for wider identification and reporting of laggards on improving gender pay.

“Being able to tell these stories about individual agencies’ poor performance, we’re able to have a discussion about the implications of that – which you can’t have without that detail,” Logie said. “It’s important to be a prompt for change, but also in terms of public understanding of the problem,” she said.

Logie was particularly critical of Treasury: “They have a very significant role in analysing what governments should be spending money on. And for them to perform so badly, at that level in terms of women’s role at senior leadership, is a real concern.”

Treasury, the government’s economic advisory arm, has been a regular winner of the wooden spoon in the government-wide push to close the gender pay gap, according to data collated by the PSC.

While the overall gender pay gap at Treasury has trended down in recent years – in 2016 it stood at 22.9 per cent, nearly double the public service average of 13.5 per cent – the Herald survey and Public Service Commission data show it still has one of the largest pay gaps in the sector.

In a statement, Treasury said the small sample size requested by the Herald was “potentially misleading” and hires since the survey date meant its executive leadership team now comprised four men and three women.

Treasury said it had reduced its overall gender pay gap from 18.9 per cent to 14.3 per cent over the past year, largely by improving internal promotion practices and allowing flexible work arrangements in all roles.

A spokesperson for Customs conceded that women accounted for only two of its 10 highest-paid staff, but added: “We would very much like to see a more equitable distribution of our highest-paid roles.”

The university sector made up a significant bloc of the most male-dominated organisations in the Herald survey, with Otago, Lincoln and Waikato reporting eight of their 10 highest-paid employees were male.

In a statement, Otago said its figures included medical staff who had dual clinical and academic roles and also included final payments to staff who had retired.

Waikato said its proportion of women at its top-10 highest-earners had doubled over the past year, from two to four. “We continue to focus on attracting and retaining women in leadership positions, and moving away from the legacy of a traditionally male-dominated and long-serving workforce,” the spokesperson said.

Lincoln acknowledged its skew at the top, and attributed it partly to “the gender gap challenges facing the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines as a whole” and said it had in July established a group to address gender equity reporting directly to the vice-chancellor.

Universities, which do not fall under PSC overwatch, came in for sharp criticism from the Tertiary Education Union. Union president Tina Smith said of the Herald finding of a sharply male skew at the top of Waikato, Massey and Otago universities: “We’re not the least bit surprised by these statistics.”

Research published last year showed female scientific researchers at universities were paid $400,000 less than their male colleagues over the course of their career.

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