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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern awards Siouxsie Wiles New Zealander of the Year award 2021 for her work supporting New Zealand's COVID response through effective science communication. Nicgaston, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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David McNabb, PhD
Senior Lecturer, Unitec Institute of Technology, Auckland, Aotearoa, New Zealand

Leadership and the economic impact of Covid 19 on women in Aotearoa New Zealand

There are many negative impacts on women and girls arising from Covid 19. These include gender-based violence and the accompanying impacts of mental distress and economic deprivation.

In Aotearoa New Zealand (Aotearoa is the preferred indigenous name) one of the key negative economic indicators for women has been increased unemployment and underemployment.

The first Covid 19 lockdown occurred in March 2020 which led to many businesses being shut down. One of the earlier sets of data on the employment effects on women from Covid 19 showed that in the June quarter of 2020 of the 11,000 unemployed, 10,000 were women. A staggering 90% of those unemployed. This reflected the negative impacts on the sales and hospitality sectors during lockdowns where women are a majority (Vergara, 2020).

With limited community transmission of Covid 19 in Aotearoa the economy has rebounded back from the worst period in the June quarter of 2020 however, it has been an uneven recovery. “The March 2020 quarter captured New Zealand’s labour market prior to the impact of COVID-19. Changes between then and the September 2020 quarter show that while both sexes have been negatively impacted, women have been worse affected” (Neal, 2020). Industries such as construction where men are the majority, have been much less affected by the lockdowns.

The added vulnerability of the disproportionate effect of Covid 19 on the sales and hospitality sectors, which includes cleaning and domestic care work, was an inability to work from home as many white-collar workers were able to do. The additional impact of this was on indigenous Maori women and other women of colour who are strongly represented in these sectors, also on many women who work part time while balancing unpaid work at home (Wardecki, 2020).

The threat of Covid 19 to women’s economic status is based on a tradition of inequity. The gender pay gap has been a long-standing reminder of the way in which capitalism and patriarchy reinforce each other. Covid 19 is likely to make the gender pay gap worse. In Aotearoa New Zealand a more comprehensive study of the nature of the gender pay gap that analysed benefits beyond salary levels alone, found it was larger than earlier thought, at a level of 17.7% (Hendry, 2020).

An important measure taken in Aotearoa New Zealand to address the gender pay gap were legal claims led by women and their unions which was also part of a campaign to change the law, “The Equal Pay Amendment Act 2020 came into effect from November 9, bringing about a focus on pay disparity in industries that predominantly employ one gender” (Bell, 2020).

One of the notable pay equity claims involved social workers in Oranga Tamariki, the government child welfare agency, winning a major pay rise based on the argument that because women were the majority of employees, their pay had not remained equitable to comparable work sectors where men were a majority such as prison officers (ANZASW, 2018).


Aotearoa New Zealand has come to prominence internationally because it has been one of the more successful countries to eliminate the spread of Covid 19. Its female Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has been noted as an effective politician who has used values such as kindness as a key plank in gaining public acceptance of decisive action against Covid 19. This has been noted within the global context of other successful female leaders (Curtin, 2020).

Further to having a female prime minister, women hold the key civic positions of: Governor General – head of state representative, leading the judiciary, and leading the parliamentary opposition. Following the November 2020 elections, Aotearoa New Zealand has the most diverse parliament in its history being ranked fifth for diversity in the world with nearly 50% female representation. Ardern has committed herself to addressing inequity and poverty across society and famously brought in a Wellbeing Budget in 2019 that focused on societal wellbeing alongside fiscal responsibility (Inter Parliamentary Union, 2021).

However critics argue that Ardern and her government have talked a good game but have not adequately delivered to their own promises let alone the hopes of people wanting real change for women and for a more equitable society (Curtin, 2020).

Women make up the majority of workers within our profession and have a strong history of working for the interests of women and girls. However, though men are a minority with social work, we have a responsibility to ensure we don’t reproduce gender inequity and that we are active in advancing antisexist practice. This includes critically reflecting on masculinity and male privilege, and working collaboratively with women toward the social work goal of gender equity (Pease, 2011).

From a social work perspective, a key challenge in addressing the impacts of Covid 19 remains to deliver from within the political system to address the negative systemic impacts for women, girls and groups traditionally disadvantaged, while also working to reform that system so it becomes more fairer for all.


ANZASW. (2018). ANZASW statement on the Oranga Tamariki pay equity agreement. anzasw.nz
Bell, J. (2020). NZ Equal Pay Amendment Act 2020 comes into force: 4 aspects employers need to understand. Human Resources Director. hcamag.com
Curtin, J. (2020). Jacinda Ardern’s global renown is great, but she must do more for women. The Guardian. theguardian.com
Hendry, C. (2020). Overall gender pay gap is 17.7% in NZ. strategicpay.co.nz
Inter Parliamentary Union. (2021). Women in politics in New Zealand: here’s what they are doing right. Inter Parliamentary Union. ipu.org
Neal, A. (2020). COVID-19’s impact on women and work. Stats NZ. stats.gov.nz
Pease, B. (2011). Men in Social Work. Affilia, 26(4), 406–418. doi.org
Vergara, M. J. (2020). 11,000 New Zealanders have lost their jobs – and 10,000 of them were women. The Spinoff. thespinoff.co.nz
Wardecki, A. (2020). Covid-19’s Impact on Women in New Zealand & the Gender Pay Gap. Global Women. globalwomen.org.nz