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More than a pretty face: the place of young women in NZ politics

Thursday 24th August 2017

New Zealand once led the way in women’s political rights but we’re now falling behind the pack. Does the parliamentary system need to change for younger women in Aotearoa?

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, National candidate Nicola Willis, former Greens MP Holly Walker and Greens MP Julie-Anne Genter

Thanks to Kate Sheppard and the suffrage movement, an old man with a neatly trimmed beard signed a piece of paper in 1893 giving New Zealand women the right to vote. However, it took 40 years before a woman was elected to Parliament and another 50 years for the number of women in Parliament to reach double figures.

New Zealand may have been first out of the gate to include women in politics, but we’ve been rather slow ever since. New Zealand ranks 32nd out of 190 countries for women’s representation in parliament. While we’re not the worst, we’re far from being representative - about 50 percent of our population are women while only 31 percent of our parliamentarians are. 

Holly Walker, former Green Party MP turned writer and reviewer, says we’ve hit a glass ceiling.

“Since the introduction of MMP in 1996, we shot up to about 30 percent very quickly but haven’t moved much since then. Clearly the systems we have at the moment, whilst better than the alternative, are not enough to achieve equal representation. We need to do more.”

 

Walker withdrew from the Green Party list shortly before the 2014 election. Her husband fell ill and being an effective MP and mother to a young baby was near impossible. She says this is one of the reasons there aren’t more women in Parliament - systemic barriers making it unreasonably difficult for mothers.

“Women – who tend to still carry the bulk of carer responsibilities outside of their professional lives – look at Parliament and don’t see how they could make it compatible with those other responsibilities. They don’t try because they think it would be crazy. And they’re right. The system needs to change.”

Politics and babies; it’s a topic that has furiously been debated this month since Jacinda Ardern took the top job of the Labour Party. The young leader has been asked repeatedly whether she plans to have children and, while many were mad that a woman was subjected to that line of questioning, Walker believes there’s another side do.  

“I hope the conversation we’re having publicly is about what would need to change for us to be able to imagine a woman being the leader of a political party, or the country, and having a baby,” says Walker. 

“I totally get where people are coming from when they say it’s outrageous…but part of me also thinks if we don’t ask, we’re perpetuating the myth that if she has a baby, she should be able to figure it out on her own. Then we don’t take the collective responsibility to look at the changes that need to happen.”

Walker, along with Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, Green Party MP Julie Anne Genter, and National Party candidate Nicola Willis are taking part in a political panel this evening discussing exactly what changes are needed.

More than a Pretty Face’, presented by the Ace Lady Network and City Gallery Wellington, asks four women in politics under 40 years whether the parliamentary system is working for younger women in Aotearoa.

Anna Dean, one half of the half of the Ace Lady Network, says the event has had a huge response. 

“It shows that young people are incredibly engaged and a lot of people are inspired by the fact that there’s a young woman leading the Labour Party.”
 
“We were interested in stimulating this discussion to a national audience about a different perspective that women have coming into parliament in 2017. This is part of a wider discussion that cuts across all industries,” she says.

Green Party MP Julie Anne Genter says women don’t always feel welcome in political world and “proactive policies” are needed to encourage more women to step up. 

“Mediocre men tend to want to surround themselves with other mediocre men so that they don’t feel threatened. Having a really specific space and saying that we need a woman to do this job means that qualified talented women look at it and say, ‘oh actually they need me. I need to do this’.”

The Green Party and the Māori Party currently have the highest number of women MPs. Of the two major parties, women are better represented within Labour at 37.5 percent. The National Party currently sits at 26.7 percent. 

Tonight’s political panel will also be delving into whether young women in politics are taken as seriously as men. 

“I think in general, [young women] have been taken fairly seriously but there’s always the offhand dismissive remarks of – let’s just say it – middle aged white men commentators,” says Genter. 

Walker also remembers feeling slightly patronised after discussions with some older politicians, despite many trying to be helpful. 

“I don’t think the term ‘mansplaning’ had caught on in popular usage during my time in Parliament but now that I know that term, I know that I got mansplaned to a lot.”

Hilde Coffé, Associate Professor in Comparative Politics at Victoria University of Wellington, says in countries with higher numbers of women in parliament, quotas are often used.  

“In my opinion, it is [a good idea]. It can help to reach the goal of having a fair number of women in parliament quite quickly.”

Coffé says research has shown that women enlisted through a quota perform as well as women who aren’t elected through quota or than men, so the reason for underrepresentation has nothing to do with their skills or capacity. It is more to do with the perception, she says. 

“In general, women feel that they are less qualified than men. They are generally not but they feel that way. That’s gender socialisation which we see in society overall that men generally feel more confident that women do.”

Women may also have lower levels of political ambition because they perceive the political sphere to be hostile toward them.

“In US recently, research has shown that the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and even Sarah Palin seems to have increased the perception among women that there is a gender bias in the electoral arena that may keep them for putting themselves forward as a candidate.”

Of course, this doesn’t always happen. Women like Angela Merkel, Michelle Obama or our own Helen Clark, can also inspire others to enter the world of politics.

“Now we can see Jacinda Arden and how she can really be a motivating factor or role model for young women to see that [they] can do it.” 

You can catch the ‘More Than a Pretty Face’ discussion live on The Wireless, RNZ and Spinoff Facebook pages tonight from 6.30pm.



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Mava is an award-winning journalist for The Wireless.
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