October 12, 2022

Women in 1950s New Zealand

Women were confined to traditional European gender roles

Have you ever wondered what your life would have looked like in another era? For me, an Indian woman, and migrant, New Zealand in the 1950s would have been an incredibly inhospitable place.

When I moved to Aotearoa New Zealand from India in 2015, I did not consider my gender or ethnicity as explicit barriers to participation in study, work, or even social life. But this has not always been the case. Not so long ago, in the 1950s, the immigration of non-Europeans, specifically those of non-British origin like myself, into New Zealand was openly discouraged. I found a 1953 memorandum by the Department of External Affairs that stated that immigration was based on the principle that New Zealand intended to remain a country of European development and that policy was intentionally discriminatory against Asians1. The Immigration Restriction Act 1908 specifically prohibited the entry of people not of British birth, unless they were issued special permits by the Department of Labour.

Paging through the New Zealand official yearbook of 1955-56 revealed that of the 23,000 people intending to reside permanently in New Zealand in the 1955-56 year, just over one percent were born in India. Given that this was just a decade after India’s independence from the British Empire, this probably included people of British origin born in India during the British rule. In the years since then New Zealand has become an incredibly diverse country, with people from all over the world choosing Aotearoa New Zealand as their new home. For example, in the year ended June 2019, 12.1 percent of all arrivals into the country were from China, 9.6 percent from India, 8.7 percent from South Africa, and 6.9 percent from the Philippines. The UK is still a large source of migrants, accounting for 6.7 percent of all arrivals during the same time period. 

So, the world has changed radically in the past 65 years, and although I would not have met the conditions under the Immigration Restriction Act 1908, I was still interested to see what socio-economic outcomes looked like for women in general in 1950s New Zealand, and how that compares to today.

Women in post-war New Zealand remained confined to “traditional” roles

1950s New Zealand was, in many ways, a very unequal place for women, and was a period of social conformity. The end of the Second World War signalled a return to pre-war “normality”. Traditional European gender norms persisted in the home and in the workplace. Women were expected to lead a life of domesticity and fulfil their roles as primary caregivers. As a result, women married young, with 67 percent being married before they turned 25. In fact, the average woman got married at 23. Today, the average age for marriage for women is 31 years, reflecting higher participation in work and a shift in traditional gender norms.

Women in the 1950s, in all probability, would not have obtained a university education. Overall participation in tertiary education was extremely low, and was even lower for women. Again, looking at the 1956 New Zealand official yearbook, less than 10,000 students were enrolled to study at a university across the country. Of these, less than a quarter (24 percent) were women. But how the world has changed in such a short time period. Women today make up over 60 percent of all university students. The most popular areas of study have also changed. In the 1950s the most popular area of study for both men and women was arts, and 62 percent of all women in university took an arts course. The only other degrees that had more than 100 female students were science degrees, including medical science. Less than six percent of commerce students were women. Unfortunately, some gender attitudes and perceptions remain stubbornly persistent across generations, and even today, women are highly under-represented in engineering and technology-related courses at university.

In 1956, the minimum weekly wage for women was over £3 less than the wage for men

Over the past 65 years, the nature of women’s participation in work has fundamentally changed. In the post-war era, although participation was increasing, paid work was still secondary to women’s role as caregivers. Given the absence of support such as childcare and flexible work, women’s labour market participation resembled an m-shaped curve, with women entering work before marriage and again after their children had reached school age. In 1956, only 30 percent of all working-age women were active in the workforce, and unemployment was remarkably low at 0.9 percent. Today, the labour force participation of Kiwi women stands at a historical high of 67 percent, and continues to increase.

Source: Statistics New Zealand

The legal and regulatory space was far from gender neutral, and this helped perpetuate traditional gender norms and kept participation in work low. There was no law in place prior to the 1960s that prevented different pay rates for men and women. The Government Service Equal Pay Act was only passed in 1960, followed by the Equal Pay Act of 1972. In the 1950s, it was perfectly normal, and even legal, for women to be paid less than men for the same jobs. For example, the average wage for women in factories was £381 compared to £729 for males. In fact, even the minimum wage for men and women was set at different levels. In 1956, the minimum weekly wage for women was over £3 less than the wage for men. Women’s incomes were viewed as supplementary to men’s incomes.  

Although we still have a fair way to go in terms of achieving full gender and ethnic parity, it is safe to say a lot has changed for women, and other diverse groups, in Aotearoa New Zealand over the past 65 years. The 1950s ideal of ethnic homogeneity has long been abandoned, and the perception of women in work and leadership is shifting. Sixty five years ago, economic and social independence for women, much less ethnically diverse women, was still a distant dream and would not have been possible without the radical changes demanded by the wāhine before us.

Urvashi Yadav, pictured above, is an Analyst at BERL.Urvashi Yadav, pictured above, is an Analyst at BERL.