Gordon McLauchlan: An equality unrivalled anywhere

Amma Darko is her name. She's from Ghana and has one of those faces that make you wish you were a painter - flawless, deep chocolate complexion, red lipstick, ivory-white teeth that flash at around 1000 watts when she smiles, and long black hair in braids, some of which she uses to tie up the others in various jaunty ways.

She's sturdily built without being fat, swathed in strong and various colours, predominantly reds. When she walks into a room full of 30-plus international writers newly met - their competitive egos prancing - and smiles, she is immediately, unselfconsciously, the focal point.

She writes novels, in English - Beyond the Horizon and The Housemaid have been published and very good they are too, according to at least one British critic I've read. Having just read the celebrated Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, I'm in pursuit of Beyond the Horizon. If it's half as good as Achebe's work it will be worth the effort.

I get to sit next to her on the bus (not entirely by accident) and ask her about women's rights in Ghana. She shrugs and says only that they bear so much of the burden of poverty.

"Where I come from," I tell her, "the Governor-General, the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice, several Cabinet ministers and the CEO of one of the two largest corporations are all women."

She turns in her seat to look me full in the face, grinning. Then, shaking her head incredulously, she says: "And how do you like that?"

"It's fine by me, but then it wouldn't make any difference if it wasn't."

"Enjoy it. You're lucky," she says, laughing.

Because I know the Herald is working on a series about the progress of women in New Zealand, I've started thinking about their position in other societies and, casually over a day or two, ask others of these men and women from every region of the world what they think of our matriarchy.

They all react with varying degrees of astonishment and incredulity, some with cultural wariness, and few with any willingness to talk about their own situation.

An Englishman looks alarmed and says: "We got rid of that with Maggie Thatcher, thank God."

"I'm not talking about one tough woman but a whole top female layer of leadership."

"Is that as bad as it sounds?" he asks good-naturedly.

"Doesn't seem all that much different really. Maybe politics is politics."

But women in New Zealand have carved out a position of equality and respect for themselves probably unequalled in the world. Take Asia, Africa, the Middle East (Israel apart, perhaps), Latin America, the American South and its rural regions, most European countries and, yes, Australia, and it's no contest.

Of course, many of the great urban centres such as London, New York and Los Angeles have attracted no-nonsense women who take no prisoners but, as a long-time admirer I think Kiwi women deservedly outdo them all. I admire them more than I do New Zealand men. In general, they're mentally more flexible and receptive.

Some years ago I was in Honolulu for a few hours one evening between flights home and I phoned a New Zealand woman I knew (I'll call her A), told her I was in town. She said to taxi around and have a drink to kill time.

She was clever and energetic, had arrived in Honolulu a couple of years before and had risen rapidly to the top of the business she was in. During the few weeks before I was there two hyper New Zealand friends I also knew had stayed with her and her Canadian flatmate. I'll call them B and C.

When she went into the kitchen to make some coffee, the Canadian woman turned to me and whispered diffidently: "Are all New Zealand women like A, B and C?"

"No," I said. "Not quite. They form a pretty extreme sample but they give you the general idea."

There is a dark side, though. The New York Times carried a story this week about a young, high-powered New York woman public relations consultant who drove at and injured 16 people in a tizz, and even in court remained brazenly arrogant.

I've seen some New Zealand women move through over-compensation into this area that was previously exclusively occupied by men. No names, but it's not nice to see.

But the trend is towards a fair go for women throughout the Western world and they're making the most of it. At the University of Iowa where I am at present, the new academic year has just started. Total female students outnumber men by 53 per cent to 47. So men may be pushed to maintain their pre-eminent place everywhere.

I've been around long enough to know what women once had to put up with in literature and the media and how far they've come in the past 30 years. If the Herald research shows, as I suspect it will, that a glass ceiling is still there, no matter how high, then I hope women will break through to the open air sooner rather than later.

As for me, I'll try and enjoy it and consider myself lucky, as Amma Darko suggests.

nzherald.co.nz/nzwomen

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