Women’s increased labour market participation has long been a driver of economic growth in New Zealand. However, women have different experiences in the labour market to men, which can put them at an economic disadvantage. 

Common trends we see with women and the labour market are: 

  • Women are more likely to be underemployed and underutilised in the labour market.
  • Women are concentrated in lower skilled, lower paid and/or part-time or casual work.
  • Women earn less despite often having more qualifications than men. 
  • Women are more likely than men to have experienced discrimination, harassment, or bullying at work.
  • Women undertake a disproportionate share of caring and family responsibilities, reducing their capacity to study, train, work, and adapt to labour market requirements and changes. 

The quarterly Household Labour Force Survey (HLFS) monitors key indicators of employment, such as the labour force participation rate (i.e., the proportion of working age (15 years and above) people who are in the labour force) and the unemployment rate. 

As at December 2023, 64.5% of women 15 years and above are employed, compared to 73.6% of men 15 years and above. In the same quarter, the unemployment rate for all women was 4.3% compared to men at 3.7%. The unemployment rate for wāhine Māori is 8.2%, nearly double the rate for all women.

Women’s participation in the labour force (the rate of working aged women who are either in work or looking for work) was 67.4% in December 2023, compared to 67.2% in September, while men's rate was 76.5%. The labour force participation rate for wāhine Māori is slightly lower at 65.4%.


The HLFS includes a measure of the underutilisation of labour in Aotearoa New Zealand. This measure provides an indication of people who are employed but want to work more hours (underemployed), those who want a job but are not currently actively looking or available to start work, and people who are unemployed by the official definition.

337,000 people were reported as underutilised in the December 2023 quarter, which equates to an underutilisation rate of 10.7%. The measure is important because it provides a way to better understand the untapped potential in the labour market.

As at December 2023:

  • the underutilisation rate for women was 13.0%, compared with 8.6% for men.
  • 195,000 women were underutilised, compared to 142,000 men.
  • 80,000 women were underemployed compared to 43,000 men.

Unpaid work

Women undertake a disproportionate share of caring and family responsibilities such as looking after children, older people, and those with disabilities, often while managing their paid work commitments.

The Westpac New Zealand 2021 report, Sharing the Load, found that the division of labour remains gendered in New Zealand households as fathers typically do most of the paid work, while mothers undertake the bulk of the work at home. This report found that if the load of housework and care responsibilities was shared more equally, the size of New Zealand’s economy could increase by $1.5 billion on average every year, representing approximately 0.5% of New Zealand GDP.

Although unpaid work makes an important contribution to the economy and plays a pivotal role in society and to individuals and communities, it is not visible, widely understood, or recognised, as “real” work.

When women shoulder most of the responsibility for unpaid care work, they are less likely to be engaged in paid employment. Those who are active in the labour market may be limited to part-time or informal employment and earn less than their male peers.

The Ministry’s research, Parenthood and Labour Market Outcomes, shows that mothers in paid work suffer a "motherhood penalty" that increases the longer they stay out of the workforce, and mothers who were in low or unpaid work before becoming parents face an ‘employment gap’. 

As a result of the motherhood penalty, women are disadvantaged in areas such as pay, progression and security of employment. Women often experience decreased earnings when they return to the paid workforce from career breaks and have difficulty getting their careers back on track or getting into sustainable employment. All of this has a significant impact on women’s financial security and lifetime earnings, which are substantially reduced in comparison to men.

Supporting women into work

There are a range of supports and subsidies that parents could be eligible for that can help with balancing their work and caring responsibilities on the Work and Income website. 

Flexible working

Flexible work is any variation from the norm in a worker’s hours, days, or location of work. It can be a formal or informal arrangement with an employer. It can be a key enabler of women’s labour force participation. Flexible work can help men and women to remain in the labour market and can facilitate shared care for children or other dependents. 

Flexible work can offer more opportunities for employees and employers and can help to attract and retain skilled labour. Flexible work is commonly seen as a business retention tool and one which, if used strategically, can improve the productivity and profitability of a business. 

Employment New Zealand has information for employers and employees on their responsibilities with flexible working on their website.

Paid parental leave 

Paid parental leave is one of the key entitlements for women to support them while caring for their child. Parents are entitled to 26 weeks of government-funded parental leave payments if they will be the 'primary carer' of a child born (or coming into their care), and 26 weeks of unpaid extended leave. It also ensures their role is available when they return from leave.

Inland Revenue has information about parental leave payments on their website.

Smartstart also has comprehensive information for new parents including about parental leave on their website.


Manatū Wāhine-sponsored research used the Growing Up in New Zealand (GUiNZ) study to report on mothers’ difficulty in accessing childcare. Amongst the findings of the reports, it was identified that: 

  • Access issues were experienced by 7.7% of mothers nine months after birth, and by 7.5% of mothers two years after birth.
  • Mothers reported a range of different access issues, but cost was cited as a major factor, particularly by Pacific mothers.
  • Māori and Pacific mothers are two to three times more likely to experience access issues than European mothers, and three to four times as likely to face long term access issues.
  • Mothers whose work history was impacted by childcare access issues had more difficulty securing higher-skilled work later. 

Access to childcare services can also enable more women to participate in the labour market. Childcare services can include out of school care and recreation (OSCAR) and early childhood education (ECE). ECE is important both for children’s education outcomes and as an enabler of their carers’ participation in work. 

The Ministry of Education has information about Early Childhood Education on their Parents and whānau information website.

Further reading: Employment

The Ministry has published a range of reports and resources on women and employment. 

Further reading: Gender Pay Gap

The Ministry has published a range of reports, action plans, and resources on the Gender Pay Gap.