No more limp excuses

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  • Published 20140204
  • ISBN: 9781922182241
  • Extent: 300 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

IT WOULD BE fascinating to know what Queen Victoria was thinking in 1893 as she penned her congratulatory note to the newly elected mayor of Onehunga[i], Elizabeth Yates. Having narrowly defeated the local draper, Yates had become New Zealand’s first woman mayor and the first such gender-defying phenomenon in the entire British Empire. Perhaps the Queen felt some glimmer of hope for a future in which it would no longer seem remarkable for women to step forward to contribute to their community’s well-being and future development. But not so the town clerk of Onehunga and the four councillors who instantly resigned on hearing the news of her victory. Nor the other councillors who opposed every proposal she advanced, regardless of their merit. Nor the crowd of detractors who frequently gathered outside the small council chamber to disrupt the meetings over which she presided as their mayor, jeering and hooting and, according to newspaper reports, other ‘disgraceful behavior’[ii]. And all this despite the record showing her brief period of community leadership was noticeably productive, with a legacy of sound reforms and useful initiatives – liquidating the borough debt, establishing a sinking fund, re-organising the fire brigade, and upgrading roads, footpaths and sanitation.

Yet like the long line of women leaders who followed Elizabeth Yates, both in New Zealand and across the Tasman, her style was just all wrong, critics describing her as dictatorial and tactless.[iii] And so at the first opportunity Elizabeth Yates was voted out after barely a year in office, and overwhelmingly so, despite being acknowledged as an able administrator by even her fiercest critics[iv] and despite the community improvements achieved during her brief period of office. Just as more than a century later, Helen Clark’s reputably austere style[v] had to be softened after she became New Zealand’s second woman prime minister, and the first to be elected. And a decade later still, the familiar criticisms of her style, clothing, hair, childless status, accent, and cool and measured public persona were similarly thrown at Australia’s first woman prime minister, Julia Gillard – innuendoes about their own and their (male) partners’ sexuality another of the demeaning insults both of these impressive women leaders had to endure. And much, much more, and much, much more degrading in former prime minister Gillard’s case, as documented by Anne Summers[vi] and Kerry-Anne Walsh[vii] amongst others. An astounding, distressing phenomenon deserving more words and analysis and national reflection than is possible here. But in both cases, it was these women prime ministers’ style which so offended and enraged. Just as Australia’s first woman vice chancellor, Professor Di Yerbury, discovered at the first international meeting of women university and college presidents that every single one of them had been told that her management and leadership style was a problem, in fact the problem, despite their myriad differences from each other on almost every other demographic, cultural, linguistic, religious, and disciplinary dimension[viii]. When it comes to women and power there is, apparently, no right style.

Yet New Zealand women asserted their right to and successfully stepped into leadership in the public, including the political domain from the earliest days, leading and surprising the world. New Zealand became the first independent country in the world to grant women the right to vote with the passage of the Electoral Act of 1893, a right which they exercised for the first time later the same year (and the day before Elizabeth Yates’ election as the mayor of Onehunga) – a right for which many had fought long and hard, led by courageous activists such as Kate Sheppard, now a national icon immortalised on the New Zealand ten dollar note. The right to stand for election took quite a few more years, 1919 for the lower house, and 1941 for the upper house, with the first Pākehā woman elected in 1938 and the first Māori woman in 1949, both to the lower house. Then in 1989 Helen Clark became New Zealand’s first woman deputy prime minister, and in 1997 Jenny Shipley the first woman prime minister when she toppled Jim Bolger as the leader of the National Party.

By the early years of the twenty-first century, New Zealand had seen women as governor general (twice)[ix], as attorney-general[x], as solicitor general[xi], as speaker of the House of Representatives[xii], and as leader of the opposition[xiii], all this in addition to two woman prime ministers[xiv]. This year Helen Clark was ranked as twenty-first in the top one hundred most powerful women in the world.[xv] Not only is she the only New Zealander on the list, she has recently been appointed to a second term as Administrator of the United Nations Human Development Program (UNDP) – the first woman in this role, the third most powerful at the UN[xvi] – and now being mentioned as a possible successor to Ban Ki-moon as Secretary-General. Not bad going for a woman from such a small nation who many in her own party predicted would usher in a period of electoral doom when she took over the Labor Party leadership in 1999.

But is this just about one particularly impressive woman and a handful of other very high achievers? And has their historical prominence encouraged complacency and myth-making about gender equality more broadly, as suggested by the former governor general, Dame Silvia Cartwright: ‘The perceived predominance of women across some of the country’s key leadership positions during recent years carries the risk of a double-edged sword. It is all too convenient to assume that this profile accurately represents the status of all…’.[xvii] Not surprisingly, New Zealand is ranked ninth in the world by the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) Gender Gap Index in terms of the number of years in the past fifty during which the country has been led by a woman[xviii]. The same source ranks New Zealand twelfth out of 136 countries on its political empowerment measure, massively outperforming Australia at forty-third. And in terms of the WEF’s overall aggregate gender gap rankings New Zealand again wallops Australia, coming in seventh compared to Australia’s twenty-fourth[xix]. Interestingly, it seems that New Zealand’s high overall gender gap ranking relies heavily on one measure, political empowerment, rather than generally high rankings across other dimensions, taking us back to Dame Silvia’s reflection. Its first place in educational attainment is shared with twenty-five other countries (including Australia) so does not differentiate New Zealand, whereas it is fifteenth to Australia’s thirteenth in economic opportunity and more than thirty ranks below Australia for health and survival.

In addition to the history of New Zealand women’s political advancement of which it is so justifiably proud, and its generally respectable performance in these international rankings, by 2012 women occupied nearly a third of national sports governance positions, nearly 40 per cent on trade union national executives, and close to a quarter of chief executive positions in the public service[xx]. In 2013 the NZX introduced a gender diversity reporting requirement which, although weaker than hoped and without a requirement for listed companies to report on their gender equity plans, as in Australia, will usefully shine a spotlight on progress (or its absence) in the gender composition of private sector boards.


AS WITH POLITICAL rights, so with higher education, New Zealand made its mark early when in 1877 Kate Edger became the first woman graduate and the first woman in the British Empire to graduate with a BA, albeit gaining admission without revealing that she was in fact a woman. Yet despite New Zealand’s consistently high international rankings for educational participation and achievements by gender, by 2003 women academics held only 15.8 per cent of senior academic positions, as professors and associate professors (AP)[xxi], and today only one of the country’s vice chancellors is a woman[xxii]. In response, seed funding was sought from the Kate Edger Educational Charitable Trust to develop a national leadership programme for university women, NZ WiL. Now entering its eighth year, it is arguably world-leading in its reach and impact. By 2012 New Zealand’s women held almost a quarter of the senior academic positions nationally, the change at AP level most dramatic, virtually doubling their representation since 2003 by reaching almost a third in 2012[xxiii]. This robust and well-designed programme has significance on many levels, as evaluations have documented: its impact on individual participants, their institutions and the sector as a whole, with women’s academic promotional progress signaling strong, future pipeline growth for women at the top of New Zealand universities; the ever increasing size of the body of past participants, each of them influential as current or prospective leaders and collectively a force to be reckoned with; the wider network formed between participants and presenters to the programme, the latter high-profile, talented and often very powerful women from a diverse range of sectors and industries across the country, who each inform and enrich the programme as well as together widen the size, reach and clout of its collective network; and finally the fact that NZ WiL is still strongly supported by every vice chancellor in the country, indicating satisfaction with its impact and, critically, recognition of the ongoing need for such a programme.


IT IS SURPRISINGLY difficult to get comparative data on New Zealand’s Māori, Pasifika and Asian women’s position relative both to men in their communities and to Pākehā women[xxiv], but there are some positive signs here too. Importantly, there is a growing cohort of younger Māori women leaders, many in positions created through the Treaty Settlement process, which in addition may translate to greater representation at senior levels of the public service and across the country more generally. At the time of New Zealand’s last report to the committee overseeing the UN’s Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), three of the eight women in the New Zealand Cabinet were Māori[xxv]. We Pākehā women may well have something to learn from these Māori women leaders, grounded as they are in their traditional, culturally determined sources of community acceptance, authority, confidence and strength. Certainly the large and growing number of impressive, strong, confident and diverse Māori women leaders who year after year present to the NZ WiL programme inspire the participants and speak volumes about their standing in their own communities and their impact beyond, now and into the future.

But looking more closely there are indications that gender equality progress has stalled or even stumbled, for example, with New Zealand slipping from fifth to seventh place in terms of the WEF’s aggregate Gender Gap ranking, now behind Ireland and the Philippines and back to where it had been in 2006[xxvi]. Since 2005 women have hovered at about a third of New Zealand’s MPs, but seem to have been stuck there for almost a decade. Other worrying signs are the drop in the percentage of women on government appointed statutory bodies in the past couple of years, a disconcerting trend since this is presumably where government action can have the greatest and most immediate impact. In addition, twenty-two government departments having bigger gender pay gaps than the average across the labour market, nine of them (including the Treasury and Prime Minister and Cabinet) more than 20 per cent[xxvii]. The lack of progress in narrowing the gender pay gap across the New Zealand labour market has provoked international attention, as recent research has documented[xxviii], with increasingly specific and more pointed comments about New Zealand’s regressive gender equity record recorded at the UN in response to New Zealand’s second (1993), sixth (2006) and seventh (2010) periodic reports to its CEDAW Committee. And domestically the Human Rights Commission’s 2012 New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation states that the data contained therein ‘shows that New Zealand now follows, rather than leads, other countries in active measures to improve women’s representation’, mentioning ‘low bar’ targets and ‘a bleak picture of pale ambition for women’s progress in New Zealand’,and attributing this to weak political will with respect to the achievement of substantive gender equality[xxix].

Both the New Zealand Human Rights Commission and the UN’s CEDAW Committee seem especially frustrated by New Zealand’s refusal to consider the use of special measures (as provided for by domestic legislation), including and especially quotas, to kickstart the step-change required. Reaction to suggestions that quotas might prove useful, even required given the failure of other approaches, have been staunchly resisted across the political spectrum in New Zealand as in Australia. Yet the WEF’s latest Gender Gap Report notes that 40 per cent of the 87 countries for which data is available have passed laws mandating gender percentage representation in political assemblies and nearly a quarter have done the same with respect to corporate boards[xxx]. Half the European and central Asian countries included in the WEF Report have passed such laws with respect to political representation and even more (55 per cent) in terms of corporate board membership. And the same has been happening throughout our own region, although not at the same rate, where the figures are 40 per cent and 10 per cent respectively[xxxi]. Indeed, the practice is so common that the WEF Report includes it in an appendix documenting policy frameworks for gender equality by country and region, legislatively mandated gender quotas being listed there alongside other core policy approaches such as maternity and paternity leave.[xxxii]


ON A MORE positive note, there are stirrings and signs of impatience in the wider New Zealand community, suggesting that the apparent public policy and leadership vacuum in the arena of gender equality may yet be filled by a resurgence of community-based activism. An example of this, and what it can achieve, is the recently formed CEDAW Coalition of New Zealand NGOs which last year prepared and presented its own shadow report to the UN’s CEDAW Committee in parallel to the New Zealand Government’s report, recommending that the Government work with women’s groups to develop a New Zealand action plan for women with authentic targets and accountabilities[xxxiii]. It remains to be seen whether any lasting change will result from this revival of social activism directed at achieving substantive gender equality for New Zealand women, in all their diversity. Perhaps it will express itself and gain political traction through the forthcoming New Zealand election, even generating multi-party support to catapult New Zealand back into world leadership. Stranger things have happened. Like the passage of the amendment to the New Zealand Marriage Act which last year legalised same sex marriages, achieved through the leadership of another remarkable New Zealand woman leader, Louisa Wall – the young Māori Labor MP, member for the seat of Manurewa, also a double fern sports star having represented her country in both netball and rugby, who took thirteen years to be pre-selected to a safe Labor seat, and who has so far been knocked back in her quest to gain a place on the male-dominated NZ Rugby Union board, not even getting an interview for the Blues board – in explanation of which she said ‘It’s such an old boys’ network.’[xxxiv]

Norway has had no trouble filling its corporate board gender quotas since this was mandated, and the Norwegian economy is still flourishing and its society has not collapsed in chaos now that 100 per cent of Norwegian boards have women members. Yet the opponents of gender quotas for our parliaments and board rooms, women as well as men and in Australia as much as in New Zealand, bang on about fairness and offending the merit principle, ignoring the self-evident fact that neither fairness nor the merit principle can possibly be operating now. Not, as Anne Summers writes so insightfully[xxxv], after the decades during which women and girls in our two countries have been achieving equal if not better educational results than men and boys, yet continue to be vastly under-represented anywhere that real power operates, politically, economically, and culturally. A deep and highly valued commitment to a fair go is much waved about in any discussion about gender quotas, revered as a core element of the New Zealand national psyche much as it is in Australia. But this commitment seems thin on the ground for those thousands of under-paid, insecurely employed women in the New Zealand aged-care sector who look after the frailest members of the community, and whom a recent national enquiry found are being paid three dollars less per hour than gardeners[xxxvi]. Even the Prime Minister, John Key, acknowledged publicly that their pay is ‘unequal’ limply explaining that it would simply be too expensive for the country to remedy this injustice[xxxvii].


BUT NATIONAL PSYCHE aside, why is it that English-speaking nations are so out of step with European and Asian nations in putting in place modest, effective mechanisms to achieve gender representation? Especially odd, even perverse when it is almost universally acknowledged, and by powerful men in our corporations and parliaments, that better gender representation would not only be fairer but would enhance the productivity of our corporate boards and the effectiveness of our parliamentary processes. And perplexing when both countries use similar mechanisms to ensure representation of otherwise under-represented members of the community in a variety of other circumstances, including political. For example, there would be few if any members in the upper house of the Australian national Parliament from the less populous states without mechanisms to ensure that all states in the federation were equally represented.

As the New Zealand National Party MP for Pakuranga said in his delightfully witty speech supporting the passage of the marriage equality bill, the ‘fire and brimstone’ predictions of what will befall us with the introduction of rational, effective change should simply be ignored: as he said, the sun will still rise tomorrow, you will not have skin diseases, or rashes, or toads in your bed, life will just go on, so, quoting Deuteronomy, ‘Be ye not afraid’[xxxviii]. Perhaps the warnings about the ills which would be unleashed by parliamentary and corporate board gender quotas should also be seen for what they are – an irrational, hysterical (testerical?) defence of the status quo, a last-ditch attempt to subvert the unfettered operation of the principles of merit and representation to protect the vested interests of those with privileged access to power which they would prefer not to relinquish, or not just yet anyway. Queen Victoria would not have been amused.


[i]Now a suburb of Auckland

[ii]Elizabeth Yates in New Zealand History online,, accessed 7/01/14



[v]Helen Clark in New Zealand History online, , accessed 7/01/14

[vi]Summers, Anne, 2012, “Her Rights at Work: The political persecution of Australia’s first female prime minister”, Human Rights and Social Justice lecture delivered at the University of Newcastle, 31 August 2012, accessed at; and Summers, Anne, 2013, The Misogyny Factor

[vii]Walsh, Kerry-Anne, 2013, The Stalking of Julia Gillard

[viii]Yerbury, Di, presentation to a meeting of the Australian Colloquium of Senior Women in Higher Education, Brisbane, circa 1996/7, confirmed by the presenter 16/01/14

[ix]Dame Catherine Tizard (1990-1996) and Silvia Cartwright (2001-2006), the latter also NZ’s first woman High Court judge (1993-2001)

[x]Margaret Wilson (1999-2005)

[xi]Sian Elias (1999-present)

[xii]Margaret Wilson (2005-2008)

[xiii]Jenny Shipley (1999-2001)

[xiv]Jenny Shipley (1997-9) and Helen Clark (1999-2008)

[xv]The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women, accessed 7/01/14

[xvi]“Helen Clark: from New Zealand’s Prime Minister to United Nations Heavyweight”, Leading Women, CNN, accessed 07/01/14

[xvii]Quoted in McGregor, Judy, Nov 7, 2013, “Gender equality and social justice – progress, paradox and promise”,Lincoln Efford Memorial Lecture, delivered to the Workers’ Educational Association, Christchurch, New Zealand, p.2

[xviii]The Global Gender Gap Report 2013, World Economic Forum, p. 297, downloaded 07/01/14 at

[xix]Ibid, pp. 120 & 297

[xx]New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation 2012, New Zealand Human Rights Commission, Nov 2012, p.2

[xxi]New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation, 2012,op cit., p.138

[xxii]Professor Harlene Hayne at Otago University in Dunedin

[xxiii]15.97% in 2003 to 30.46% in 2012, New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation, 2012,op cit., p.138

[xxiv]In the words of the former Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, Dr Judy McGregor, “While data on the participation and representation of Māori and Pacific women is reported when available, it is seldom collected.” Ibid, p. 2

[xxv]Ibid, p.6

[xxvi]The Global Gender Gap Report 2013, op.cit., Table 3a, p.8

[xxvii]New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation 2012, op.cit., p.4

[xxviii]McGregor, Judy, forthcoming 2014, “The human rights framework and equal pay for low paid female carers in New Zealand” in The New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations, p.8

[xxix]New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation 2012, op.cit., p.3

[xxx]The Global Gender Gap Report 2013, op.cit., p. 93

[xxxi]Ibid, pp.91-92

[xxxii]Ibid, Appendix E, pp.61-99

[xxxiii]CEDAW Coalition of New Zealand NGOs, 2013, Submission to the CEDAW Periodic Review, cited in McGregor, Judy, 2013, op.cit. pp.12-13

[xxxiv]New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation 2012, op.cit., p. 22

[xxxv]Summer, Anne, 2013, “Fear of the Q-word”, in Griffith REVIEW 40: Women and Power, pp.158-164

[xxxvi]New Zealand Human Rights Commission, 2012, Caring Counts: Report of the Inquiry into the Aged Care Workforce, Wellington.

[xxxvii]Hon John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand, Television 3 News, 2012

[xxxviii]Maurice Williamson’s speech on YouTube, accessed 11/01/14

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