Jackie Blue: Clark and Trudeau great role models in pushing equality

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Helen Clark's story of achievement is one of struggle and constantly pushing the boundaries. Photo / UN
Helen Clark's story of achievement is one of struggle and constantly pushing the boundaries. Photo / UN

I have been reflecting on the leadership of women in New Zealand in light of recent events; our own Helen Clark in the running for the world's top political position and Canada appointing a gender-balanced Cabinet. Both monumental world firsts, both events to be celebrated.

I recently attended the Commission on the Status of Women in New York and attended a panel where I heard both these leaders speak.

Helen Clark was asked what her leadership advice would be to young women at the beginning of their career. She said no one had ever opened the door for her and asked her to come in and take a seat, she had always had to kick that door down and fight for that seat.

Leadership has not been handed to Helen Clark on a plate. Her story is one of struggle and constantly pushing boundaries. It takes extraordinary leadership to peel away the conscious and unconscious biases that currently limit women advancing in business - and, particularly, politics.

Like most Kiwis, I was immensely proud when she put her hat in the ring for the United Nations Secretary-General role with the Government's full backing and endorsement. As a nation, we put prejudices and politics aside and rightfully acknowledged Helen Clark as the great leader she is. This was about New Zealand uniting and getting behind one of our own.

Another great leader who spoke at the conference was Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a meeting on women and gender equality at the United Nations headquarters March 16. Photo / Getty Images
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a meeting on women and gender equality at the United Nations headquarters March 16. Photo / Getty Images

A self-proclaimed feminist, he gained notoriety when he announced he would be forming a gender-balanced Cabinet. When asked why, he replied simply, "because it is 2015". He realised early on that it would take a concerted effort to draw in extraordinary women to stand.

When he announced he would be appointing a gender-balanced Cabinet there were all sorts of comments along the lines of "You're not appointing on merit, you're bringing in a quota and you are not picking the best person for the job".

He responded by saying: "The fact is, men should be lucky I only made it a 50 per cent women Cabinet."

Justin Trudeau recognises the immense value women bring to the table. Until gender equality is normalised and becomes part of our DNA, unless women are intentionally included, the system will unintentionally exclude them.

When we look at our own female representation in Parliament we can see it has gone backwards from 2008, when it peaked at a high of 34 per cent, to 31 per cent at the 2014 general election. Essentially there has been only glacial improvement since the first MMP election in 1996, when the percentage of women MPs was 29 per cent.

Similarly, although women comprise 60 per cent of all public servants, they are proportionately under-represented in chief executive roles (39 per cent), with many in charge of small to medium departments and senior management teams (44.2 per cent). But the overall picture is one of progress. In the private sector a Grant Thornton survey of Kiwi businesses this year confirmed that women make up less than 20 per cent of senior management teams, a figure that has been flat lining and very similar to data from New Zealand Stock Exchange top 100 companies.

We must learn from the leadership of two great leaders paving the way for women's representation as leaders and decision-makers. Women need to back themselves and put themselves forward just as Helen Clark has done.

Those who have authority and power, such as Justin Trudeau and our own Prime Minister, must lead from the top and model and normalise gender equality and representation of women in leadership. It is 2016, after all.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Dr Jackie Blue is Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner.

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