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Women need not apply': Job adverts reveal changing employer biases

26 February 2020


Finding the right person for the job can be a tough task for an employer.

Inevitably, the values of an employer are going to influence the operation they run and the sort of employees they seek. As a result, job adverts reflect diverse values and the outlook of a wide range of different people.

Over the years the nature of adverts varies greatly and always reflects both the good core values and the prejudices of the time. Society through its laws tries to moderate more extreme behaviour.

Before the days of scrolling through job advertisement websites, jobseekers would page through the "situations vacant" columns in newspapers. The strong societal sentiments of the time towards gender, race and religion were evident in the types of workers employers were seeking.

No one batted an eye at an advertisement in the Wairarapa Daily Times in 1904 which called for "A Coat Hand, also Trousers and Vest Hand for hand work only. Women need not apply."

Similarly, an advert from 1910 in the Dominion which sought "Man Cook, Country (Chinaman no objection)" would have been a show of tolerance, revealing that objections may have been made by other employers to Chinese workers. This is a reminder of how far we have come as a more tolerant multicultural society in the last 110 years.

Even less than 100 years ago, there were adverts like that in the Auckland Star in 1931 that called for "Experience Portrait salesman; Catholic preferred".

While things have moved a bit, even a century later we still see prejudices sliding their way into job advertisements.

A recent classified ad seeking a couple for holiday park manager position by Tokoroa's Glenview Holiday Park caused a stir for this reason. The advert set a number of requirements including a wife who must be "good in communication [and] of a quiet disposition" and "Partner - for Park Maintenance".

The employer stood by his advert on the basis that he found "that women around the office are generally maybe better inclined", though he admitted he may not have used the correct language.

Across the ditch, similar outrage was elicited by a recent advert on job advertising website Seek by a Post Office licensee in New South Wales. The advert was for an entry-level retail job and noted "unfortunately the successful applicant will not be an over entitled millennial with an inflated sense of entitlement".

The employer defended the advert, saying she is happy to employ a younger person if they fit the requirements of the job and "understands that it's an entry-level job".

Seek removed the statement from the listing on the basis the language breached anti-discrimination laws.

Legally, in New Zealand an employer in the private sector is entitled to make its own decisions on who it hires. However, they cannot unlawfully discriminate against an applicant.

The Human Rights Act specifically prohibits an employer from refusing or omitting to employ a qualified applicant on the basis of any of the 13 prohibited grounds of discrimination, such as sex, religious belief, race, colour or age. It is also unlawful to circulate any form of application or make enquiries about an applicant that would indicate an intention to unlawfully discriminate against them.

Accordingly, the Tokoroa holiday park advert could be discriminatory on the basis it indicates a decision to refuse to employ a male applicant to perform the female designated role. However, simply seeking a candidate who is "of a quiet disposition" is not discriminatory or unlawful.

Similarly, if the Post Office Licensee were in New Zealand, it would be unlawful to discriminate against applicants on the basis of being a millennial as age is a prohibited ground of discrimination. However, making decisions on the basis that the applicant had an inflated sense of entitlement would not be discrimination, although it may not be PC.

Should employers be entitled to be upfront about the factors that will influence their decision making? Some may argue that, otherwise, the employer may place a correctly worded PC advert but covertly discriminate.

Others may find it outrageous that those biases are part of the decision making at all and employers should focus solely on objective and lawful criteria. Social sentiments and laws have changed a lot in the last 100 years and employers should accept that. However, even in 2020 there is still evidence of employment prejudice slipping through the cracks of the law and public consciousness.

The Human Rights Act still provides specific exceptions for situations involving things like national security, privacy and religious institutions (including religious schools).

Readers may be aware of the recent sit-in by students at the Kennedy Catholic High School in Seattle. They are protesting the school allegedly forcing two teachers out of their jobs. Both teachers recently got engaged to same sex partners.

New Zealand is becoming a much more secular society. The use of the exemption in the Act for religious institutions probably has a limited shelf life. The exemptions will likely pass into the annals of history like the discriminatory adverts of the early 1900s.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm and Women's Refuge are partnering to bring your business an understanding of the effects of domestic violence and the new laws assisting victims of domestic violence at work. Contact us to discuss your needs.

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