Judy McGregor: Women, this is your chance to make a change

Theresa May is Britain's new Prime Minister. Photo / AP
Theresa May is Britain's new Prime Minister. Photo / AP

Judy McGregor is an AUT Professor and co-author of new book Human Rights in New Zealand: Emerging Faultlines with Margaret Wilson and Sylvia Bell.

Wanted: more female candidates to stand in local elections. Anyone interested in a more equal society should be urging the smart, capable women in their lives to put themselves forward as candidates before nominations for local elections close on Friday next week.

The last seven election cycles have seen the number of women in local government hovering at around 30 per cent. It's widely recognised that local bodies in New Zealand require greater female representation " and more women in decision-making positions " but it's not possible unless women put themselves forward.

Beyond our shores there are some potent symbols of women's new power and influence.

In the UK, following the extraordinary Brexit result, there has been a historic shift. With Theresa May taking the top role and her appointment of Amber Rudd as Home Secretary, women now hold half of the "Great Offices of the State" for the first time in UK history. Women hold a third of the new Cabinet including an openly gay woman in the education and equalities portfolios.

Other symbols of this shift include Hillary Clinton's run for presidency in the US and our own Helen Clark's characteristic sure-footedness in her bid to become the first woman in 70 years to lead the United Nations.

But as former Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright once famously noted, such a welcome spike in women's representation can also be a double-edged sword. It can be presumed that because several elite women make it to the top in politics and public life that this reflects the status of all women generally. Men and women should celebrate gender progress, but not without acknowledging that significant and structural inequality remains the norm.

Even before May moved into 10 Downing Street, she had to contend with familiar and sly innuendos about her childlessness, a slur which is no less offensive because it came from another woman. And Australian women have the post-election blues. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's governing coalition's female representation has fallen to its lowest level since Paul Keating was Prime Minister, at 13 women to 63 men.

AUT research shows more women are urgently required in local government. Women's representation has remained static at around 30 per cent over the past seven election cycles.

While the percentage of female mayors went up to 31 per cent " over 30 per cent for the first time in 2013 " only 17 per cent of district council mayors were women. The research, co-authored with my AUT colleague Dr Karen Webster, also shows women's representation as city councillors was 33 per cent, down from 39 per cent in 2001, and the number of female regional councillors had dropped too.

Encouragingly, once women commit to standing, they are more successful proportionately at being elected. So while female city mayoral candidates dropped to 15 per cent in the 2013 elections, a much higher percentage, 31 per cent, were elected.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has urged New Zealand to take concrete action and set goals and time-frames to increase women in local government. There has been little follow-up.

Community leadership is often the path women take to local government and there is sometimes a pipeline effect of women moving on to mayoralty from local boards or councillor positions.

In 1893, Elizabeth Yates, a strong supporter of women's suffrage, became the first female mayor in the British Empire when she defeated a male draper in the Borough of Onehunga. Since then it has been slow progress.

Women and their supporters have the opportunity to change the dynamics of local government this year. All of us need to encourage good women " our partners, mothers, friends and colleagues " to put in nomination papers and give it a go.

- NZ Herald

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