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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.