Career

Why Kiwi women still have a long way to go to achieve gender equality

It's been 125 years since New Zealand women won the right to vote, but we still have a long way to go.

By Genevieve O’Halloran

It's been 125 years since New Zealand women gained the right to vote. It was a remarkably civilized process, compared to the bloody struggle of the British suffragists. There were no deaths under horse's hooves or hunger strikes. Instead, there were campaigns, a series of petitions, legislation introduced to Parliament.

In 1893, a third petition gathered 32,000 signatures; the female population at that time was about 300,000. Later that year, the franchise was extended to all women citizens of New Zealand.

On page 456 of that third petition, there is a scrawled signature: Honora Mahony, Lucknow Terrace, Napier. Honora Mahony, nee O'Callaghan, was the daughter of Mary and Patrick. She left County Kerry in 1865 with her sister Catherine, searching for a better life in this far-flung new Colony. She had spent 28 years in New Zealand, and was a mother of 10 when she signed her name on that petition; Honora Mahony, my great-great-grandmother.

It's been 125 years since New Zealand women won the vote and the law has long recognized women's equality in this country. We have the Equal Pay Act, the Human Rights Act, the Bill of Rights Act. Our trailblazing tradition is a point of pride for New Zealanders. "First to grant women the vote!" we boast. And did we mention our Prime Minister just had a baby?

And yet, recently, the question of whether the Prime Minister was justified in travelling separately to the Pacific Island Forum dominated the news cycle. Her 11-week old daughter Neve, too young to receive her vaccinations, was unable to accompany her; the PM, breastfeeding, did not wish to be separated from her baby for so long. The Prime Minister elected to fly separately from the rest of the delegation at a cost of about $80,000.

"Extra costs for taxpayer so PM can spend more time with baby," trumpeted the NewstalkZB news bulletin. The PM's baby is interfering with her job, said Leighton Smith. It is wrong for her to go, said Tim Dower: "Is the stress of being a new Mum and Prime Minister starting to show?"

"Just pull out of the meeting", said Duncan Garner.

As much as we might like to be all modern and cool about "this stuff", opined Mike Hosking, with uncharacteristic coyness, "it's not normal, and we don't treat it as normal."

The message is clear: allowing a mother – let alone a breastfeeding one – to occupy the office of Prime Minister is a costly inconvenience, compared to a man (who can presumably ignore his children, and leave the management of his family to Her Indoors). The very idea of a politician wanting to see their own small child is somehow inappropriate. Yes, a politician's baby – anyone's baby – should take priority when they are considering their work obligations, and it's not pie-eyed Jacindamania to say so. We shouldn't expect Simon Bridges to prioritise his work to the extent that the welfare of 8-month-old Jemima suffers either. Why is this sentiment somehow controversial? What kind of dystopic hellscape of a society are we aiming for where work should be the priority over everyone, everything, all of the time?

And the Hosk is right – it's not normal, in the sense of being ordinary, expected, average. Ardern is our 40th Prime Minister, only our third female one, and certainly the first to give birth while in office. Having a breastfeeding mother as Prime Minister has not, until now, been normal. But why can't it be?

The rigid modern workplace

At the heart of it, we are still trying to fit women into a workplace designed by 19th century men; a workplace that would still largely be recognisable to Honora's seven sons. And we wring our hands and wonder why there is a dearth of women in senior roles, why there is still a persistent gender pay gap.

The fact is that in the professional, white-collar environment, there is equal opportunity for women – as long as they can behave just like a man (with a wife at home). Generally speaking, women are no longer discriminated against as a result solely of their sex, but of their family status; it's the motherhood penalty.

Finding a way to improve access for women in the workplace is not just a nice-to-have, feel-good extra to make ladies feel good about themselves. There are tangible commercial benefits to improving female participation in the workforce. For employers, there are the benefits of diversity of thought, which research suggests improves commercial outcomes, of recruiting and retaining talent, and of filling roles where there is a skills shortage. (I once sat at a business forum when the CEO of a large corporate explained that he had hit upon two areas to target in his company's struggle to fill vacancies – "women, and reintegrated offenders". I looked around the room to see if anyone else was surprised at these two groups being conflated, but the audience of largely middle-aged men were nodding along sagely at his insights.)

For society, there's the improved return on investment in female education. What was the point of getting all of those clever girls to university if the educated women they become start dropping out of the workforce in large numbers as soon as they hit childbearing age? Not to mention the business case for encouraging the birth of future taxpayers. And yet for all of the much-vaunted, often-discussed benefits, organisations that actively promote policies to improve female participation – real flexible work practices, proactive initiatives to actively close the gender pay gap, and to promote female talent to senior roles – are still vanishingly rare.

One friend in a senior role starts at 6am, leaving early to pick up the kids from school (of course), available via her smartphone. She averages 45 hours a week in the office, but in reality she's available 24/7. Her boss tells her while she's off "having a lovely time with her kids", people notice she's not around – and he calls her a "part-timer" every day when she leaves. Another friend's request for reduced hours – shorter days, twice a week, with the concomitant pay-cut – was approved by her employer; but only once she promised she'd make herself available for events in the evenings and on weekend. Unpaid, naturally.

And we wonder why women hit their mid-thirties, and middle management, and decide it's all too hard.

The struggle of the juggle

It's not that women think they aren't good enough or are insecure about their own abilities. It's "reverse imposter syndrome": women anticipate (often quite correctly) that when they talk about pregnancy being tiring or needing to leave at 2.45pm to pick their kids up from school, they are assumed to be a bit incompetent, or not really that committed.

The reality is that humans have lives outside of work, and sometimes those lives affect our productivity; but equally that life outside of work, all of our lived experience, is what generates diversity of thought, and what makes us valuable employees. A workplace that recognises that life is unpredictable, that employees are not automatons, that sometimes you cut people a bit of slack, is probably a place where people will feel happier, and contribute more. It's not rocket science.

As long as the "struggle of the juggle" (as the women's mags call it) is a women-only issue, nothing is going to change. It is a shared problem, and it needs to be a shared solution. And for whatever reason, men seem reluctant to ask for flexibility or reduced hours. Is it a macho thing? Lack of confidence? Lack of interest? Fear of the impact such a request could have on their employability, at a time when their ability to earn money is more important than ever? All of the above, to varying degrees, probably. The same answer comes up time and again. "It's not the done thing", apparently. It's not the done thing because men don't do it. Once upon a time, it wasn't the done thing for women to be lawyers, or doctors, or Prime Ministers. The only way for things to change is to crack on and do it. Make it the done thing.

Motherhood – parenthood – is not binary. We can still be ambitious for our careers, but still want to see our kids. This should not be a female issue – this should be a human issue. Society does not win when men spend long, unproductive hours at the office, and delegate the burden and the joy of raising children to the other half of the human race.

Ambition: a dirty word for women

It starts young. As a teenager at my Catholic girls' school, our teachers were ambitious for us. We were clever girls, so we were told, we would go to university, we would have careers as well as families (it was always as well as, not instead of). We could have it all. I asked my husband, alumna of one of Auckland's most prestigious boys' schools, whether they had similar conversations – having it all, a career as well as a family. (I already knew the answer.) "Ha! Don't be ridiculous. Our teachers were telling us to choose between Law and Med."

When it comes to women, that kind of naked career ambition is a dirty word. At 30 weeks pregnant I heaved myself out to see Hilary Clinton. It was a room full of people like me: white collar, professional, privileged. I rolled my eyes through the mawkish introductory video, but when Clinton appeared on the stage, they welled up. Hillary's defeat in 2016 had stung. (A friend said to me "we must have just been at the exact most vulnerable time of our lives for maximum trauma from that election huh." It seems melodramatic, but I understood: at 36, we're young enough to still feel hopeful and a bit idealistic. But we're also old enough to be jaded, and to feel resigned to that fact that perhaps being a woman will always mean missing out.)

I can't really remember the anodyne questions Hillary was asked, but there was one response that struck me.

She proclaimed that she'd never had any political ambitions of her own, not really. But in 1998, as the sun set on the Clinton White House, all these people started telling her she should run for New York Senate seat. It was other people that pushed her to consider a Senate run, she said, and then a tilt at the presidency. She didn't really want to. I'm a big fan of Hillary Clinton, unpopular as that view often is to admit. But really, who does she think she is kidding? If even Hillary, who has nothing left to lose, still disavows her ambition, what does that tell the rest of us?

The motherhood penalty doesn't just extend to the reality of caring for children. The chilling effect starts long before egg meets sperm. Should I apply for that more senior/better paid/more/challenging job? Better not – we're trying to for a baby. Parental leave entitlements only attach once you've been in a job for six months … I'd better not apply because I might be pregnant by then and I'd lose my parental leave entitlement/I'm already established here/they wouldn't be very impressed if I had to take maternity leave when I'd just started. And so, these invisible handcuffs – real or imagined, actual or potential – stagnate our careers in their most formative years.

The PM and baby: Making working motherhood normal

Whether you agree or not with her politics, we have a living example of a woman blending work and motherhood in Jacinda Ardern. I watch our Prime Minister in press conferences and I see the dark circles under her eyes, the tiredness she's not allowed to admit to in case someone accuses her of not being fit to do her job (as if all previous Prime Ministers had no hopes or fears keeping them awake at night). I feel for her in the same way I feel for all mothers, in the same way I feel sorry for myself. Motherhood is not binary. You can be simultaneously fiercely attached to, and fascinated by, your baby, while also being bored out of your mind at the grinding monotony of feeds, naps and nappies.

"I'm not superwoman," our Prime Minister said, of her return to work at six weeks post-partum. "I'm privileged and I'm lucky". And she is. But we don't all need our very own Clarke Gayford, ministerial limo or Premier House. Many of the conditions that have allowed the PM to balance motherhood with a high-profile job are conditions that could be replicated for us mere mortals: good quality childcare close to home or work; a short commute between the workplace and the office (or, if that's too utopian an idea in this age of motorway gridlock, the flexibility to work from home); a society that encourages male partners as primary caregivers; some ability to accommodate breastfeeding for working mothers. The recognition that outcomes, rather than presenteeism, is what counts when it comes to work.

"The petition of the undersigned Women, of the age of 21 years and upwards resident in the Colony of New Zealand, humbly sheweth: that large numbers of Women in the Colony have for several years petitioned Parliament to extend the Franchise to them…"
"The petition of the undersigned Women, of the age of 21 years and upwards resident in the Colony of New Zealand, humbly sheweth: that large numbers of Women in the Colony have for several years petitioned Parliament to extend the Franchise to them…"

The days are long but the years are short, as they say of parenthood. But equally the same could apply to our working lives. Employers that acknowledge that parenthood is just a small part of a working life, for both men and women, have more to gain than they do to lose.

Part of me wonders what Honora would make of make of all of this. I can see her tutting at the very idea of an unmarried mother for a Prime Minister. My complaints about pregnancy and motherhood would, I'm sure, seem incredibly precious to her. My two, carefully planned children would strike her as suspiciously Protestant. If Honora had one trait in common with her many descendants, sympathy for moaners would be limited.

And yet – the Honora Mahony who scrawled her name on page 456 wanted something better and fairer for women. The Honora who left Ireland with her sister, knowing she'd never see Mary and Patrick again, knew that change takes courage, and change takes time.

I think of my grandmother, Honora's grand-daughter in law, telling her girls they must travel. Go to London and do your OE, to see the world that I haven't, and come back and tell me all about it. I think of my mum, told by the nuns who taught her that her career options were teaching or nursing, determined that my sister and I would go to university. Each generation of women pressing forward to forge a bit of change for the next, to make life a bit better for their daughters; Honora would approve, I think.

My daughter was born on 18 June. "You'll forget", people told me, when I complained about the never-ending hell of pregnancy (I haven't). "It'll all be worth it when you hold that baby in your arms," they told me. (It was).

My daughter was born on 18 June. It will be up to her to seize the opportunities and privileges that being born in New Zealand will offer her. But it should not be her job, or the job of women "leaning in" to fight to create a space for ourselves. It is incumbent upon everyone, male and female, to create a New Zealand where all of our sons and daughters have the opportunity to contribute equally, at home and at work, where the impact of parenthood is shared equally over both parents' careers, where it is the "done thing".

My daughter was born on 18 June, and on that day the world was changed forever. She walks in the footsteps of all the Honoras, and of the voiceless armies of women who have gone before her.

This article originally appeared on Noted and was republished with permission.