Sex and power in New Zealand: stalled at the crossroads?

Julia Gillard and Helen Clark supposedly suffered from a problem with their leadership style - and so, it seems, does every other woman in a position of power. AAP/David Foote

Historically, geographically, culturally – there are many points of comparison between Australia and its neighbour to the east, New Zealand. But there are notable differences.

This week, The Conversation, in conjunction with Griffith REVIEW, is publishing essays examining issues of marginality and modernity. We have run articles on the arts, the environment; on the economic and emotional ties that bind people to land, and land to the rest of humanity. We take a fresh look at the 21st century world that exists just beyond the ditch.


It would be fascinating to know Queen Victoria’s thoughts in 1893 as she penned her congratulatory note to the newly elected mayor of Onehunga, Elizabeth Yates. Having narrowly defeated the local draper, Yates had become New Zealand’s first female mayor and the first such gender-defying phenomenon in the 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 development.

Not so the town clerk of Onehunga and four councillors who instantly resigned on hearing of her victory. Nor the other councillors who opposed her every proposal, regardless of merit. Nor the crowd of detractors who gathered outside the council chamber to disrupt the meetings over which she presided, in scenes that newspaper reports described as “disgraceful”.

All this was despite the record showing Yates’ brief time in office was noticeably productive, with a legacy of sound reforms and community improvements. These included liquidating the borough debt, establishing a sinking fund, re-organising the fire brigade, and upgrading roads, footpaths and sanitation.

Parading ‘style’ as the problem

Yet like the long line of female leaders who followed Yates in New Zealand and across the Tasman, her style was just all wrong. Critics described her as dictatorial and tactless. 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.

More than a century later, Helen Clark’s reputedly austere style had to be softened after she became New Zealand’s second female prime minister in 1999, and the first to be elected.

A decade later still, the familiar criticisms of style, clothing, hair, childless status, accent and cool and measured public persona were similarly thrown at Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard. Both these impressive female leaders had to endure demeaning innuendoes about their own and their (male) partners’ sexuality.

And there were much more degrading insults in Gillard’s case, as documented by Anne Summers and Kerry-Anne Walsh among others.

It was these female leaders’ style that so offended and enraged. Just as Australia’s first female vice-chancellor, Professor Di Yerbury, confirmed to the authors that she discovered at the first international meeting of female university and college presidents that every one of them had been told that her management and leadership style was a problem. In fact, it was the problem – despite their myriad differences.

When it comes to women and power there is, apparently, no right style.

Early progress in politics

Yet New Zealand women successfully asserted their right to step into public leadership from the earliest days. New Zealand became the first independent country to grant women the right to vote with the Electoral Act of 1893.

Kate Sheppard earned her place on the NZ$10 note by leading the campaign that made New Zealand the first country to recognise women’s right to vote.

Many had fought long and hard for that right, led by courageous activists such as Kate Sheppard, now immortalised on New Zealand’s $10 note. The right to stand for national office came later: 1919 for the lower house and 1941 for the upper house.

The first Pākehā (white) woman was elected in 1938 and the first Māori woman in 1949, both to the lower house. In 1989, Helen Clark became New Zealand’s first female deputy prime minister and, in 1997, Jenny Shipley became the country’s first female prime minister.

By the early 21st century, women had served as governor-general (twice), attorney-general, chief justice, Speaker of the House of Representatives and leader of the opposition.

Helen Clark is ranked 21st in the top 100 most powerful women in the world. Recently re-appointed as Administrator of the United Nations Human Development Program (UNDP) – the first woman in the UN’s third-most powerful role – she is being mentioned as a possible successor to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.

But is this just about one particularly impressive woman and a handful of other very high achievers? Has their prominence encouraged complacency and myth-making about gender equality more broadly? This was suggested by the former governor-general, Dame Sylvia 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…

A mixed report card

Not surprisingly, New Zealand is ranked ninth in the world by the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report in terms of the number of years in the last 50 during which a woman has led the country.

The same source ranks New Zealand 12th out of 136 countries on its political empowerment measure, massively outperforming Australia at 43rd. In the WEF’s overall aggregate gender gap rankings, New Zealand again wallops Australia, coming in seventh compared to 24th.

Interestingly, New Zealand’s high overall ranking relies heavily on one measure, political empowerment, rather than generally high rankings across other dimensions, taking us back to Dame Sylvia’s reflection. Its first place in educational attainment is shared with 25 other countries (including Australia), whereas it is 15th to Australia’s 13th in economic opportunity and more than 30 ranks below Australia for health and survival.

In addition to New Zealand women’s proud history of political advancement, by 2012 nearly one-third of national sports administrators, nearly 40% of trade union national executives and close to a quarter of public service chief executives were women.

In 2013, the New Zealand stock exchange introduced a gender diversity reporting requirement. Although weaker than hoped and without a requirement for listed companies to report on their gender equity plans, as in Australia, it will usefully shine a spotlight on progress (or its absence) by private sector boards.

Building on gains in education

As with political rights, New Zealand made its mark early in higher education. In 1877, Kate Edger became the first female graduate. She was the first woman in the British Empire to graduate with a BA, albeit without her enrolment revealing her gender.

Despite New Zealand’s consistently high international rankings for educational attainment, by 2003 women held only 15.8% of senior academic positions, as professors and associate professors.

In response, seed funding was sought from the Kate Edger Educational Charitable Trust to develop a national leadership program for university women, NZ WiL. Now in its eighth year, it may potentially be world-leading in its impact. The authors’ forthcoming paper (co-authored with Di McCarthy), to be delivered in Vienna at the eighth European Conference on Gender Equality in Higher Education in September, presents an evaluative analysis of this program.

While all the nation’s vice-chancellors support the NZ WiL program, Harlene Hayne is still the only woman among them. University of Otago

By 2012, New Zealand’s women held almost a quarter of senior academic positions. Since 2003, they had virtually doubled their representation at associate professor level to 30%.

Evaluations of this program have documented its significance on many levels. All vice-chancellors – only one of whom is a woman – strongly support NZ WiL. That indicates satisfaction with its impact and, critically, recognition of ongoing need.

Embracing diversity

It is surprisingly difficult to get comparative data on Māori, Pacific Islander and Asian women’s position relative to men in their communities and to Pākehā women, but there are some positive signs. A growing cohort of younger Māori women leaders, many in positions created through the Treaty Settlement process, 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 Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), three of the eight women cabinet members were Māori.

Pākehā women may well have something to learn from these Māori female leaders, grounded as they are in their traditional, culturally determined sources of community acceptance, authority, confidence and strength. Certainly the stream of impressive, strong, confident and diverse Māori women leaders who year after year present to the NZ WiL program speak volumes about their standing in their own communities and their impact beyond.

Some worrying signs

But, looking more closely, there are indications that gender equality progress has stalled or even stumbled. New Zealand slipped from fifth to seventh in the WEF’s aggregate gender gap rankings, back to where it was in 2006. Since 2005, the proportion of female MPs seems to have been stuck at around one-third.

The percentage of women on government-appointed statutory bodies has fallen in the last couple of years. The trend is disconcerting since this is presumably where government action can have the most immediate impact. In addition, 22 government departments have bigger gender pay gaps than the labour market average: nine of them, including the Treasury and Prime Minister and Cabinet, more than 20%.

The lack of progress across the labour market has provoked international attention. Increasingly pointed comments about New Zealand’s regressive gender equity record have been recorded at the UN in response to New Zealand’s second (1993), sixth (2006) and seventh (2010) periodic reports to its CEDAW Committee. Research documenting the response to the official government reports is to be published in the next edition of the New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations.

Domestically, the Human Rights Commission states that the Census of Women’s Participation data:

…shows that New Zealand now follows, rather than leads, other countries in active measures to improve women’s representation.

The report attributes “low bar” targets and “a bleak picture of pale ambition for women’s progress” to weak political will.

Proven policies resisted

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission and the UN’s CEDAW Committee seem especially frustrated by the refusal to consider special measures (as provided for by domestic legislation), especially quotas, to kick-start the step-change required.

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 2013 Gender Gap Report notes that 40% of the 87 countries for which data is available have laws mandating gender percentage representation in political assemblies. Nearly one-quarter have done the same for corporate boards. Half the European and central Asian countries in the report have passed such laws governing political representation and 55% have board membership quotas.

Norway has had no trouble filling its corporate board gender quotas since this was mandated. The economy is flourishing and its society has not collapsed in chaos now that 100% of Norwegian boards have women members.

The same has been happening, although not at the same rate, throughout our own region, where the figures are 40% and 10% respectively. The practice is so common that in an appendix documenting policy frameworks by country and region, legislated gender quotas are listed alongside other core policy approaches such as maternity and paternity leave.

Community activism gives hope

The wider New Zealand community is showing signs of impatience. The apparent public policy and leadership vacuum may yet be filled by a resurgence of community-based activism.

An example is the recently formed CEDAW Coalition of New Zealand NGOs. The coalition last year prepared and presented its own shadow report to the UN CEDAW Committee. It recommended that the government work with women’s groups to develop a plan with authentic targets and accountabilities.

Perhaps this revival of social activism will gain political traction through the national election later this year, even generating multi-party support to catapult New Zealand back into world leadership on gender equity.

Louisa Wall, a dual international athlete and now MP, has repeatedly run into the ‘old boys’ club’. Wikipedia

Stranger things have happened, such as the passage of the Marriage Act amendment that last year legalised same-sex marriages. This was achieved through the leadership of another remarkable woman leader, Louisa Wall. The young Māori Labor MP, who represented her country in netball and rugby, continues to be knocked back in her quest to gain a place on the male-dominated NZ Rugby Union board.

After not even getting an interview for the board of the Blues rugby franchise, Wall explained:

It’s such an old boys’ network.

Giving effect to the fair go

The opponents of gender quotas, women as well as men in Australia as much as in New Zealand, bang on about fairness and offending the merit principle. They ignore the self-evident fact that neither fairness nor the merit principle can possibly be operating now.

As Anne Summers writes, after decades of achieving equally if not better educationally to men and boys, women and girls continue to be vastly under-represented anywhere that real power operates.

This state of affairs is perplexing when both countries use similar mechanisms to ensure representation of otherwise under-represented members of the community in other circumstances, including political. For example, there would be few if any members in the Australian Senate from the less populous states without mechanisms to ensure that all states in the federation are equally represented.

A deep and highly valued commitment to a fair go is much waved about in any discussion about gender quotas. But this commitment, as much revered as part of the national psyche in New Zealand as it is in Australia, seems thin on the ground for thousands of under-paid, insecurely employed women.

A recent national inquiry found that those in the New Zealand aged care sector are being paid NZ$3 per hour less than gardeners. Prime minister John Key acknowledged publicly that their pay is “unequal”, but limply explained that it would simply be too expensive to remedy this injustice.

National psyche aside, why are English-speaking nations so out of step with European and Asian nations in putting in place modest, effective mechanisms to achieve gender equity? It is almost universally acknowledged, and by powerful men, that better gender representation would not only be fairer but would enhance the effectiveness of boards and parliament.

Maurice Williamson, the New Zealand National Party MP for Pakuranga, said in his delightfully witty speech supporting the marriage equality bill that the “fire and brimstone” predictions of what will befall us should simply be ignored:

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’.

Perhaps the warnings about the ills that gender quotas would unleash should also be seen for what they are: an irrational and hysterical defence of the status quo.

This resistance is a last-ditch attempt to subvert the unfettered operation of the principles of merit and representation and protect the vested interests of those with privileged access to power. They would prefer not to relinquish that power, or not just yet anyway.

Queen Victoria would not have been amused.


The co-editors of Griffith REVIEW: Pacific Highways, Lloyd Jones and Julianne Schultz, and contributors will be discussing all things New Zealand at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne (Feb 26), National Library of Australia in Canberra (Feb 27), Adelaide Writers Week (Mar 3) and New Zealand Writers Week (Mar 12).