Former Prime Minister Helen Clark says women don't just need to lean in to opportunities - they need to kick the door in and take them.

Speaking at an International Women's Day breakfast in the Beehive this morning, Clark said things had changed for the better since she was first elected in 1981, when there were only four women in Parliament.

"You name it, women have done it. Not yet regularly enough, but we have shown that you can crash through the glass ceilings in New Zealand."

When asked by National Council of Women CEO Dr Gill Greer, Clark said her rural background had helped make her resilient and women had to be resilient and be prepared to cope with losing if they wanted to take a shot at success.


She had enjoyed wins and suffered losses during her time in Parliament and that was life, Clark said.

"I've actually had a very good life. I don't sit around looking back thinking 'what if'."

There was a perception people didn't like tough women, but "you've got to be tough, you've got to be resilient to get out there and jostle your way in", Clark said.

"Nobody, women or men, should expect anyone to roll out the red carpet for them and open the door, you must roll out your own carpet and kick the door in if you really want something."

Giving a nod to the Me Too movement, Clark said globally it had claimed some "spectacular scalps".

"Women are finally saying they've had enough. I think it's positive because women often haven't complained, they've put up with it and they're not going to put up with it any more."

Clark also mentioned Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's pregnancy, saying Ardern was simply doing what women did all over the country: balancing work and motherhood.

She wanted to see that balance made easier for women at all income levels.

"I see a lot of stress on young family women now."

Clark was this morning made a lifetime member of women's empowerment organisation Zonta, which hosted the breakfast.

It was a big day for the former PM - it was also her father's 96th birthday.

Minister for Women Julie Anne Genter also spoke this morning.

"I am especially honoured to be here as Minister for Women," she said.

"International Women's Day allows us a moment to celebrate the women who have gone before us, the sacrifices that they made, the work they put in, and the victories that they enjoyed."

125 years after women demanded the vote, Genter paid tribute to the suffragettes who made it happen.

"While we acknowledge this historic achievement, and how far we have come as the first country in the world where women could vote, it's also a time to build a more inclusive and fairer society together."

Genter said a sense of belonging needed to be fostered in the women's movement, which included and listened to trans women, disabled women and refugee and migrant women.