It was 19 September 1893. A woman was standing in Parliament before assembled Members. In front of her was a petition. The petition was nearly 32,000 names long – so long it stretched through the halls of Parliament. It bore the names of women demanding that New Zealand grant them the right to vote.
By the time Kate Sheppard left Parliament that day, New Zealand had achieved a world first. It had granted women the right to vote. 123 years later, though I wonder some days what her thoughts would be if she could see 21st Century New Zealand. I suspect that Kate Sheppard would have have mixed feelings about where New Zealand has gone in terms of womens rights. Sure, much has been said and written about domestic violence and a woman’s right to say no to sexual intercourse, but in real terms the progress reducing the levels of domestic violence and rape do not reflect the amount of attention both issues get. Despite high profile cases both here and abroad regarding rape, there seems to still be a deliberate misunderstanding about what is rape culture and why it needs to be addressed.
In both society and the business world, although progress has been made in New Zealand in trying to achieve a gender balance across employment opportunities, pay and so forth, parity is still some distance away. One question that needs urgent attention is that of women in executive roles, with no business in the New Zealand top 50 having a female Chief Executive. The absence of women as Chief Executives of large companies and in board rooms is not unnoticed, but are recruitment drives, changing election processes or offering incentives actually the answer – is some sort of attitudinal sea change needed instead?
New Zealand does not lead the world in terms of child care, though it maintains a comparatively respectable ranking when it comes to paid maternity leave – 18 weeks here, as opposed to 0 in the United States, a nation many politicians here look up to. Women re-entering the workforce after giving birth here do better than in Japan where many give up looking for work because of the socially conservative attitude Japanese employers have.
Looking across the country as a whole though, New Zealand can do much better than we have. The socio-economic benefits of bringing parity to women’s rights in New Zealand – as they will in other countries – far outweigh the negatives. But to do that, we need either a sea change in the bastions where gender equality is something to be sneered at or avoided, or we need a second Kate Sheppard.