Women to the fore

New Zealand has much to be proud of in its gender equality record, and with the marking on Monday this week of International Women's Day, there is cause for celebration.

In the most recent Global Gender Gap Report of the Geneva-based non-profit World Economic Forum, New Zealand is ranked fifth out of 134 countries in an index that assesses countries on how well they are dividing their resources and opportunities among their male and female populations - regardless of the overall levels of these resources and opportunities.

Ahead of it are Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden, with South Africa at six and Denmark at seven.

Lagging behind are those countries with which New Zealand likes to benchmark itself in such international surveys: the United Kingdom (15th), Australia (20th), Canada (25th) and the United States (31st).

So, on the face of things, the country is doing well and surely only curmudgeons and unreconstructed feminists would argue otherwise.

New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote - in 1893 - and has been among those enlightened countries setting the equity agenda ever since.

Hasn't it?

Such generalisations can be misleading.

Challenges set down in a report on the status of women's rights, distributed this week for public consultation by the Human Rights Commission, suggest why unduly enthusiastic self-congratulation might be said to be premature.

These include poverty for women, violence against women and female representation in public life.

"Women are one and a-half times more likely than men to live in a household with a total annual income of $30,000 or less," the report says, while noting that 75% of people with income over $75,000 are men.

Figures for gender-based violence come in various forms, but most note a serious bias towards women as victims of it.

In New York last week, Minister of Women's Affairs Pansy Wong told the United Nations' 54th session of the Commission on the Status of Women that "we deeply regret that we have not made greater progress in combating violence against women.

In New Zealand, one in five women will be subjected to violence in their lifetime, compared to one in 20 men."

Women's Refuge puts that proportion - in the more specific context of domestic violence - as high as one in three, and notes that in 2009 the organisation received 52,739 "crisis calls".

Campaigns have been mounted to increase awareness of the issue of domestic violence - notably the Campaign for Action on Family Violence-sponsored "It's Not OK!" promotion - but there has been little publicity about public representation.

This may be a legacy of having had, in recent years, a highly visible quotient of women in prominent public positions, from prime ministers Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark to Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias, Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright, to Speaker of the House Margaret Wilson and Telecom CEO Theresa Gattung.

While women in politics and the judiciary have made gains in recent years - there are still imbalances - the glass ceiling to the nation's boardrooms appears to remain firmly in place and largely opaque to the aspirations and contributions of highly-qualified women.

A survey conducted by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, released in 2008, showed that 60 top-100 companies on the stock exchange had no women on their boards, and in total only 8.65% of total directorships for those companies.

Does it matter, and if so why?

In his speech marking this year's International Women's Day, United Nations Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon stated that gender equality was a matter "of basic human rights", but, further, that it was an economic and social imperative.

"Until women and girls are liberated from poverty and injustice, all our goals - peace, security, sustainable development - stand in jeopardy," he said.

Likewise, most New Zealanders will agree that while any amount of domestic violence is unhealthy, the disproportionate amount directed at women is unacceptable.

There are also compelling arguments for enhancing the numbers and roles of women in business and public life - including that we are simply too small and under-resourced a nation to be able to squander the demonstrable talents of half the population - and for looking closely at gender-weighted poverty and pay gaps.

By most international measures, New Zealand does extremely well in gender equality, but when women's lives are forensically surveyed, it is clear that there is little room for complacency.

And another thing

As the 11th iD Fashion Week kicks off, congratulations are in order for all those involved, from the tireless organising committee to the designers themselves, the all-important sponsors - without whom the week would not exist - and the members of the public who contribute by supporting the various shows.

This has become a trademark event on the Dunedin calendar, showcasing the city's abundance of talent and underlining its creative culture and heritage.

Long may it continue.