Every three years, the Department of Internal Affairs compiles statistics on national and local government elections, among them data on female representation in parliament and local councils.

The rationale is that for the government to represent the population, it's important that people from different groups - including both men and women - participate.

When it comes to both national and local government it could be said that this diversity is lacking in terms of female representation, and it's a situation that in part stems from an embedded cultural norm that men put themselves forward for such roles much more than women, said Auckland University associate professor of politics Jennifer Curtin.

Dr Curtin's research and publications have focused on women's representation and participation in politics and the role of feminist entrepreneurs in creating substantive policy change.


Firstly, she points out that the statistics are an average, and that there are variations.

A broad brush assessment, however, would indicate that on average there were fewer female elected representatives in smaller district councils than city councils or community boards, with the gender divide most evident in regional councils.

Traditionally in national politics, parties would put men forward, thinking they were more likely to attract votes than women, Dr Curtin said.

"This is a spurious argument, it's not the case but there's still a belief with a First Past the Post election that in order to win the most votes you have to have the candidate who is considered the most acceptable to the electorate - the norm of acceptablity is still men."

When women were elected, such as former Prime Minister Helen Clark or Wellington mayor Fran Wilde, and there were calls for there to be more women in such positions, it was common for people to point at such examples as though that was adequate, and then revert back to the norm, she said.

"It's the way the system has developed - men tend to put themselves forward, women often wait to be asked - it's an embedded cultural norm that we do not question."

That's exacerbated at a local government level where parties were not always involved, she said.

"There's no means by which parties can go and shoulder-tap candidates that come from a range of diverse backgrounds, and as such there's no mechanism to increase female representation because everyone is standing as an independent - you are reliant on women putting themselves forward."

In addition, women were still less likely to be "local notables" - leading sports clubs or organisations or owning businesses and other high-profile community activities that bring networks with them, she said, although this was starting to change.

Historically, women's networks tended to be built through through voluntary organisational work, taken on in their spare time over and above their family commitments, which provided community contacts, networks and valid experience.

"A woman standing may say she's really good at running budgets through being a homemaker. A man might say he's a better candidate because he runs a business. It's up to voters then to decide who has more experience and how that is valued."

Ideally to promote a broader range of policy, diverse representation was needed, she said.