Time for a sea change

Michael Laws
Michael Laws
It has been a strange week for women and the course of equality.

Good causes and campaigns, like true love, never run smoothly. A fair, just and sensible goal may be distinctly in sight, but getting there over the hurdles of conservatism can be a different story.

On the positive side of the ledger, there are now more female than male lawyers in New Zealand. There was also good news for Otago and for boardroom equity, with professional director Sarah Ottrey, originally from Heriot in West Otago, appointed to the board of Mt Cook Alpine Salmon.

Overshadowing those steps forward, however, was the news the Otago Regional Council had appointed another male director to Port Otago.

Regional councillor Michael Laws was particularly piqued, pointing out the port company had never had a female director and claiming the council’s appointment process was sexist and was perpetuating the idea of an "old boys’ club".

Mr Laws was fortunate not to face censure for speaking publicly about an issue and process  being dealt with by the council behind closed doors. His accusations of sexism were batted away by council chairman Stephen Woodhead, who said he did not accept "any of those criticisms".

Mr Laws’ forthrightness on some issues has not always been appreciated but it was right he spoke out on this matter. Even though it appears the appointment to the directorship was carried out in a robust and appropriate manner, the question of gender balance on the Port Otago board is one genuinely in the public interest, given its all-male composition to date.

Some might say the equality playing field seems to be getting a little more level these days. But this shows there are obviously still important issues of evenness to be sorted out.

The New Zealand Law Society is clearly excited about its statistics, which reveal there are now 6553 women practising in the country — three more women than men.

Society president Kathryn Beck is "thrilled" at reaching that point. But her excitement is not necessarily shared by other women in the profession. They say true equality, and pay parity, are still a long way off, and that the judiciary, with the exception of the Supreme Court and Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias, remains very much a man’s world. That is a situation repeated across many professions and trades.

In some ways, the fact people are celebrating a level of equality shows things are not right. In a perfect world, we should not even notice the right balance has been struck.

New Zealand has a fearsome international reputation, for its size, of being in the vanguard of sweeping change. In 1893, our nation became the first in the world to allow women the right to vote. And 120 years ago, Dunedin woman Ethel Benjamin became the first woman in New Zealand to act as a counsel in court.

The regional council has defended its appointment of Tom Campbell to the Port Otago board, replacing the retiring John Harvey. Mr Woodhead says gender diversity is taken seriously by the council and the brief for the employment consultant made that clear. Of 41 applications, three were interviewed, including a woman.

It is progress of sorts that a woman was included in the final shortlist. And the regional council has recently appointed a woman chief executive, Sarah Gardner. But the tides of change at board level cannot be held back.

Boardroom diversity, of course, has to take into account more than just whether a candidate is male or female. There are important considerations of age, experience, background, culture and personality to be considered to find the right mix.

Mr Laws says he will "keep the issue alive" as there are two more directorships to be filled in the next two years. It would be good to see women appointed to both positions.

Debates about diversity and equality are important to keep the country morally and ethically on its toes. Today is Waitangi Day. It is our special day, one on which we should all pause to think about our own contributions towards diversity and equality.

We need to accept there is still a long way to go to create a truly egalitarian society and also, as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said, realise the debate will at times become feisty. This is not a bad thing as long as it remains respectful.

We cannot just look to past achievements. The future starts today.


Societe des garçons vieux.

It's good having the 'Stormy Petrel' in the South.