There are not a lot of glass ceilings left in New Zealand for women to break through. Two of the last three prime ministers were women. Two of the last five governors-general were women. The Speaker of the House before the current one was a woman. The chief justice role has been held by a woman since 1999 and Dame Sian is not due to retire until 2021. Also the then largest company in New Zealand (Telecom) was headed by a woman just a few years ago.
Many Kiwis know, and are proud, that New Zealand was the first independent country to have women able to vote, in 1893. It is incredible to think that it was just 120 years ago that women were not possessed of the same human rights as men. It was ironically WWII that changed society's expectations about women working, as so many stepped up to do the jobs of those who went abroad to fight Hitler.
The first woman to be elected to any office was Elizabeth Yates, who was elected mayor of Onehunga in 1893. However, women could not stand for Parliament until 1919. The first elected female MP was Elizabeth McCombs in 1933, winning the Lyttelton seat in a by-election caused by her husband's death. McCombs was Labour. The first National woman MP was Mary Grigg, elected in 1942. In 1947 Mabel Howard became the first female minister and two years later Hilda Ross became National's first female minister. Progress moves slowly!
Though in 2011 there are not many glass ceilings to break, there is still a serious under-representation of women in Parliament. Sadly the proportion of women in Parliament dropped this year for the first time since 1996.
Now I'm not one of those who advocates that Parliament must or should exactly match the population in gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, left-handedness and so on. I think competence and quality is the most important qualification. However, so long as the MPs are high quality and competent, I think it is desirable that Parliament is indeed a House of Representatives, and our Representatives do reflect the diversity of New Zealand.
So I would like to see more quality, competent women elected into Parliament. But working out what the major barriers are is not so easy. As I see it, there are three potential barriers to more women becoming MPs.
- Fewer women want to be MPs, and make themselves available for selection.
- Women who do make themselves available for selection fail to win selection for winnable electorates or high list rankings.
- Women candidates do not attract as much support as male candidates in general elections.
I do not believe (3) is a barrier. I do not think there are a huge number of New Zealanders who vote against a candidate just because they are a woman. And if we look at electorate seats that have changed hands in the last two elections where the candidates were of different genders, we have:
Seats where a woman won a seat off a man - Taupo, Te Tai Tonga, Waimakariri, Christchurch Central*
Seats where a man won a seat off a woman - Rotorua, Te Tai Tonga
As an election meeting hosted by the Wellington Young Feminists Collective, I asked the candidates about what they see as the barrier, and most seemed to think the major barrier is that fewer women make themselves available for nomination because of the adversarial nature of our political system.
Some parties, such as the Greens, actually have a quota system where their rules insist there must be a female co-leader and women must make up at least four of the top 10 on their list. I personally do not like quotas, but some say they are the only way to get a proportionate number of women into Parliament.
Do you think there should be more women MPs, or do you not think it is a big issue? If you think there should be more women MPs, how do you think it is best to achieve this?
David Farrar is a centre-right blogger affiliated to the National Party. His disclosure statement is here.
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