Lizzie Marvelly: There's still a long, long way to go to equality

Act’s demand to do away with a Minister for Women shows how out of touch the party is with reality.
US President Barack Obama says there's still work to do to improve the prospects of women and girls. Photo / AP
US President Barack Obama says there's still work to do to improve the prospects of women and girls. Photo / AP

This week, Kiwi women marked 123 years of having a say in how this country is run. The success of the Kate Sheppard-led quest for women's suffrage is among our most prized "firsts" - alongside Sir Ed's conquering of Everest and Lord Rutherford's splitting of the atom - although it arguably dwarfs them all. The fact that little old New Zealand became the stage for one of democracy's most important moments should be a great source of pride for all Kiwis.

During this otherwise celebratory week, however, I was unfortunate enough to stumble upon a publication entitled Free Press, which the Act Party seemingly sends out as a press release on a regular basis. On Suffrage Day (September 19), the Act Party decided to tell the nation (or more accurately, the small minority of New Zealanders who have nothing better to do with their time than read the party's public relations material) that there is no longer any need for a Minister for Women, when in fact, it is men who are disadvantaged.

"Where once women were clearly marginalised, men are now behind in most social statistics," Free Press asserted, on a day dedicated to celebrating the still-challenged idea that women are as important as men.

More men go to prison. More men commit suicide. More women graduate from university than men. Men even die earlier!

Never mind the fact that women are paid less than men for the same work. Nor that women are more likely than men to suffer from mental illness. Nor that men commit the vast majority of the country's crimes.

Though I generally try to avoid reading about anything the Act Party says or does out of concern for my sanity, the Free Press caught me by surprise. I'd almost have thought that a Suffrage Day issue dedicated to mansplaining was a joke, but that would require the Act Party to have a sense of humour and a shred of self-awareness.

Won't somebody please think of the men? the Free Press demanded, clutching at its cherry-picked statistics. "If we can't scrap all these 'Demographic' Ministers, then men need a minister as much [as, or] perhaps more than, women."

The last time I checked, men had 17 ministers in an executive that has never, in its history, counted more women ministers than men. There are now 10 female ministers, out of a measly 41 female MPs. That's compared to 80 male MPs.

President Obama may as well be the de facto American Minister for Women, identifying himself as a feminist and using his international platform to advocate for women.

Given men make up a minority of the population, but the majority of representatives, it doesn't take a women's studies scholar to understand why a Minister for Men is a ludicrous idea, or why a Minister for Women is important. Women are under-represented in almost every arena of power, while men are over-represented. Not one of the CEOs of our top 50 companies is female. Only 14.75 per cent of private sector board directorships are held by women. Less than 35 per cent of city council representatives are female, while a mere 21 per cent of regional councillors are women. On the flip side, when it comes to negative social statistics, regardless of what Act would suggest, women are generally the most disadvantaged. From domestic violence to poverty, the statistics are numerous and frustrating.

So why do we need a Minister for Women? Because we're still not there yet. Equality is a lofty goal that remains out of our grasp. Surprising though it may be, the effects of thousands of years of subjugation and oppression don't just disappear when we reach a point where there are more female university graduates than male. We need a Minister for Women who can delve deeper into the statistics and understand that though around 60 per cent of graduates may now be women, highly-valuable STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) degrees are dominated by men, while lower-paying nursing, education and arts degrees are dominated by women. And though women can now apparently "have it all", they are still doing the bulk of unpaid domestic and caring work. And the poorest in our society, who have a very slim chance of attaining a university degree, are most likely to be women.

The pertinent question Act missed was not whether we need a Minister for Women, but whether we need a new Minister for Women. Though the ministry itself is vital, the current minister supports beauty pageants, does not identify as a feminist, and had "no comment" to make about the Chiefs scandal. Whether Louise Upston is the best candidate for Minister for Women is certainly debatable.

We're not alone in having a Minister for Women, however. Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and Malaysia all have ministers tasked with supporting women's rights.

In the United States, President Obama may as well be the de facto American Minister for Women, identifying himself as a feminist and using his international platform to advocate for women. "We shouldn't downplay how far we've come," Obama told Glamour magazine recently, "that would do a disservice to all those who spent their lives fighting for justice. At the same time, there's still a lot of work we need to do to improve the prospects of women and girls here and around the world."

While it is reassuring that Obama gets it, I can understand why some men don't. When you have no experience of what it's like to live in a world where another gender running the show is the way it's always been - from the fact that we've had only two female prime ministers out of 38, to the injustice of Sir Ed and Lord Rutherford receiving titles for their achievements while Kate Sheppard gave half the population the vote and was never made a dame - it must be hard to imagine.

From a party that has had exactly zero female leaders in its 22-year history, perhaps the Free Press' stance is unsurprising. Ignorance, however, is no excuse.

- NZ Herald

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