Women at the top

For the Far Eastern Economic Review

“It’s a boy!” cooed the Dominion’s headline reporting the appointment of Terence Arnold as Solicitor-General on September 8. That this was thought remarkable tells the story of women’s monopolisation of the four top administrative and legal posts in New Zealand.

“The glass ceiling is getting pretty thin. I think it has even got a few cracks in it,” historian and former cabinet minister Michael Bassett told the Review. Social commentator and author Anne Else is not so sure: a change of government could see men back on top.

Maybe, but New Zealand has a long history of advancing women. Every September 19 women – and many men – sport white camelias to commemorate an 1893 law which gave women the vote, the first country to do so.

One hundred years later Helen Clark, now the Prime Minister, became the first woman to lead a major party (Labour), though women had been presidents of both major parties, Labour and National, during the 1980s and Jeanette Fitzsimons has led the small Green party for a decade. A third of both the cabinet and the Parliament are women – one backbencher, Georgina Beyer, is believed to be the world’s first transsexual MP.

In late 1997 Jenny Shipley leapfrogged Ms Clark to become the first woman Prime Minister when she was elected National party leader. Ms Clark supplanted her in an election in 1999 which presented an unprecedented choice of two women as leading contenders for Prime Minister. Mrs Shipley remains leader of the Opposition.

They are to be joined at the top early next year by Dame Silvia Cartwright, whose appointment as Governor-General – head of state – was announced on August 24. Not that she set a precedent in that: Dame Catherine Tizard held the post from 1990 to 1995. But Dame Silvia, who will now have to swap her beloved battered old sports car for a stately vice-regal limousine, had already set precedents as the first Chief District Court Judge, then the first High Court judge – and she in turn was leapfrogged by Dame Sian Elias, who was made Chief Justice in 1999.

There’s more: the Attorney-General is a former law professor, Margaret Wilson, and women head the Law Society, the Employers Federation and the Institute of Chartered Accountants, once the preserves of crusty males. The three main cities have all had women mayors in the past five years. Dunedin boasts the world’s first Anglican woman diocesan bishop, Penny Jamieson. And the chief executive of the largest company on the stock exchange, Telecom, is – you guessed it – a woman, 38-year-old Theresa Gattung. Women have even blasted entry to membership of those bastions of maledom, the “gentlemen’s” clubs.

The list goes on: the most prominent figure among the indigenous Maori is a woman, Dame te Atairangikaahu, known as the Maori Queen. The most politically effective Maori body, in a culture that still denies women some speaking rights on formal occasions, is the Maori Women’s Welfare League, established in 1950.

One citadel has not been stormed, the captaincy of the iconic All Blacks, the national representatives of rugby, the national sport. But women are playing this traditionally male game too – and their national rugby team is world champion, while the men languish at world No 4. Many girls now play in teams alongside boys in schoolkids’ organised Saturday morning rugby games.

How has this come about? Ms Else pinpoints the origin in the public sector, where the rules allowed women from the early 1960s to challenge discrimination in appointments. Now women head eight of the 38 government departments, including the biggest, the Work and Income Department. Dr Bassett, a former Health Minister, said women also began to move into the professions in numbers in the 1960s and by the 1970s were rivalling and in some cases outnumbering men in the medical and law schools.

The second channel of advancement was through what Dr Bassett calls the “counter-culture” of the Labour party, which reflected in its own ranks the vigorous women’s movement of the 1970s and then in government from 1984-90 went out of its way to appoint women to public posts. This created, he says, a “critical mass” of women which made it likely there would at some point be a “big a rush of appointments at the top level”.

“We are maybe only about 10 years away from the time when men start squealing hard and loud [about missing out],” he says. In short, New Zealand may be close to being the first modern gynocracy.

Ms Else is dubious. “The glass ceiling is still there. It has just changed its nature,” she says. New Zealand still lags behind some European countries in the number of women in paid work, she says, and the wage differential has grown over the past 10 years. Dr Wilson notes that Ms Gattung is “the exception, not the rule” at the top in the private sector and says there are still few women partners in major law firms because even “extraordinarily capable women have difficulty getting cases” in those firms: those at the top “are usually either working alone or with other women””.

Moreover, Ms Else says, if men replace Ms Clark and Mrs Shipley, the number of women in other top positions “could well” fade again. Just having women at the top for a time is not a guarantee a continuing flow of women to the top.

But maybe Dr Bassett has a point, too. Ms Else says the critical factor is that a woman appointee is not the sole holder of the post. There have now been two women heads of state and two women heads of government – and, Dr Wilson agrees, the fact that they have not been “lone” achievers is likely to ease the path of future aspirants. The next 10 years will tell.