People power key to closing Asian, Māori and other pay gaps

Nina Santos is a first-generation migrant from the Philippines and is going into her final year of a Law (honours) and Arts conjoint at the University of Auckland.

Santos also works as Delivery Manager for MindTheGap, an alliance-backed campaign calling for an Aotearoa where everyone is paid fairly for their work. MindTheGap has made a public call to mandate pay gap reporting for organisations and is launching the first Public Pay Gap Registry in March. 

November 29 marks the date from when all Kiwi women technically started working for free due to the 9.1 percent gender pay gap. This week, MindTheGap has launched its #JustAsk campaign, urging people to start a conversation and help break down barriers around pay gap secrecy.

Santos talks to the AMC about the #JustAsk campaign, her experiences as a young Filipino woman entering the workforce, and the importance of people power in closing the pay gaps.

What is the #JustAsk campaign?

This week we launched our #JustAsk campaign in an effort to empower individuals to #JustAsk organisations about pay gaps.  One thing that drives these gaps is the culture of pay secrecy in workplaces. The lack of pay transparency has made it so difficult to know if you’re being paid fairly or if you’re being low-balled. It poses an even bigger challenge for women,  and people of colour because structural issues and power imbalances at work make it difficult to demand fair pay.

As MindTheGap launches its #JustAsk campaign, Nina Santos talks to the AMC about the initiative and her thoughts on the pay gaps in New Zealand. Image: Supplied/MindTheGap

Not talking about pay essentially makes pay gaps worse. 

 Pay has long been a taboo topic. #JustAsk is all about starting conversations about pay and pay gaps. When you ask, you are exercising your power as an employee and a consumer to influence unfair pay. You are using your privilege to stand up for not only yourself, but women, Māori, Pasifika peoples, gender, disability, and ethnic minorities across the country.

I want to highlight that in reality, not everyone is in a position to #JustAsk. There are a range of personal and cultural reasons, and structural barriers that make it difficult - especially for women of colour. From a migrant perspective, I also know that the nature of how visas are tied to employers make it difficult to challenge them.

The main thing is: If you hold the power and privilege to #JustAsk, please do so for those who can’t. In practice, this could look like men asking for their daughters, or sisters. Pākehā asking for colleagues from diverse cultures. Senior staff asking for junior staff. Consumers asking for employees. 

What does the pay gap look like currently for Asian people and how has it tracked over the last few years?

Whilst Māori and Pasifika women bear the brunt of the gender and ethnic pay gaps, Asian women also face significant gaps. Data from StatsNZ show that per every $1 a Pākeha man earns, an Asian woman earns $0.83. That’s a 17 percent gap. As it stands however there is insufficient research on the pay gap for different Asian ethnicities as well as gender diverse and rainbow communities. Overall, there is disaggregated data for ethnic minority women - and this is an issue in itself.

The gender pay gap affects women of colour differently from Pākeha - for every $1 a Pākeha woman makes, an Asian woman makes $0.83. Photo by Thomas Coker on Unsplash  

MindTheGap recommends further research be supported to collect data in these areas. Again - it’s hard to address something without the full picture.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’ve had to #JustAsk? Have family or friends found themselves asking and shared their experience with you? 

Before this campaign, I never asked anyone about pay. Truth be told at my first job in high school I was told I shouldn’t discuss pay with my colleagues. I’ve worked for both the private and public sectors now, and even though I was never expressly told not to talk about salary, I found that the culture of pay secrecy is ever-present.

For me that was a pain - I didn’t know what my colleagues were getting paid so I could never really tell if  I was being paid fairly, or how much to ask for at my appraisals. It was kinda like an “it is what it is” situation. 

What drew you to work with MindTheGap?

MindTheGap is powered by YWCA and the Clare Foundation. When CEO Dellwyn Stuart approached me for the role and told me a bit more about what’s in the pipeline - I already knew I was 100% in. This kaupapa is very close to my heart on many fronts - as a woman of colour, as a migrant, as a daughter of a trade unionist and as someone really passionate about social justice and achieving equitable outcomes for underserved communities.  I’m nearing the end of my law degree, so it’s also very exciting to be involved in a campaign pushing for legislative reform. I’m definitely learning as I go. 

To draw attention to the pay gaps that exist, MindTheGap has launched its #JustAsk campaign to bring transparency to salary discussions. Image:Supplied/MindTheGap

In terms of what drew me to be part of the work, part of it is anger. Issues around pay inequity are hugely personal for me - as a young woman of colour and as a migrant. I can’t help but feel aggravated that pay gaps are still an issue in 2021, and women of colour take the biggest hit.  Median data from NZCTU also suggests that Pasifika women effectively started working for free on September 22, wāhine Māori on October 3, Asian women on October 23. 

There is so much work that needs to be done to bridge these pay gaps, and address the structural inequities and discrimination that drive it. I joined MindTheGap because I know I have to be part of this change. This work is too important not to do. 

What do you see as being factors in keeping this pay gap from closing?

It’s hard to solve a problem you don’t acknowledge. Despite the data, a lot of people still believe that the gender and ethnic pay gaps are a myth. (The amount of times I’ve been challenged about this on social media and in real life is crazy!). Some people say that women should just work harder, be more ambitious, do the heavy lifting and things along those lines. The truth is only 20 percent of the gender pay gap in Aotearoa can be accounted for differences between men and women in education, occupation choice, age, type of work and family responsibilities. The remaining 80 percent cannot be easily explained other than by behaviour, attitudes, and assumptions about women in work.

Since the gaps are worse for Māori, Pasifika and Ethnic women, sexism, structural racism, unconscious bias and discrimination are some of the major driving forces of the gender and ethnic pay gaps.

Women from ethnic minorities face larger pay gaps in New Zealand than Pākeha women. Photo by Ron Lach from Pexels

I sometimes wonder if that’s the real reason why so many people still believe pay gaps are a myth. Acknowledging it would also require us to confront our own biases. 

The lack of pay gap transparency in workplaces further exacerbates this issue. There are so many barriers for women when talking about pay or questioning pay gaps. As a migrant and a woman of colour I particularly find this very challenging. This discomfort represents a much wider issue. It’s rooted in a lot of complex structural inequities such as power imbalances in the workplace and the high risk of personal backlash for women who “rock the boat” (which may even put your employment status at risk). For some cultures, asking about pay can also be viewed as culturally inappropriate or insensitive. 

Generally, we’ve been fed this socially-constructed idea that pay is a taboo. But it’s not like “fight club” - we should DEFINITELY be talking about it. Which is why MindTheGap NZ have created a range of tools and resources for everyone to use. Let’s #JustAsk. Let’s open up these conversations. Let’s challenge organisations to report on their gender and ethnic pay gaps - because once we know, we can work towards closing them. 

Nina Santos is a member of the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Leadership Network and was named as one of the Foundation’s ‘25 to Watch’    

- Asia Media Centre