It is now about three months since I became Minister of Women’s Affairs. I have spent much of that time, as much as my other portfolios allow, thinking about what the women of New Zealand need from government, and how women can contribute more to the future of our nation.
Today I want to share with you the results of that reflection – to set out my high-level priorities for women in New Zealand.
The best place to start is with the government’s vision for New Zealand, because all our policies – for women, for business, for communities, for Māori – should feed into achieving that vision.
The Prime Minister articulated that vision in his Statement to Parliament last month.
As you would expect, the government has a very strong focus on building a stronger economy. That’s because only a strong economy can provide us with the better jobs, higher incomes and improved living standards we all want for ourselves and for all New Zealanders.
The government has a comprehensive plan for faster economic growth. It involves getting the government’s books back in order, demanding better value for taxpayer money, and tilting the economy towards savings, investment, and exports.
We also have a very strong focus on better public services. This is not just a matter of looking for efficiencies in the public service – though we do need to do this to ensure taxpayers are getting the best possible value.
Rather, the main focus is on making sure we have the right services, delivered in ways that bring the most benefit to New Zealanders.
We need to ensure Kiwis have the skills they need to participate in the global economy.
We need to take a new approach to social services, by bringing agencies together to deal with the needs of families as a whole, such as in Whānau Ora.
We need some fundamental reform in our welfare services to reduce the cycle of long-term dependency. This includes helping people transition to the jobs that will be created by a growing economy.
And we need to ensure that the state delivers high quality public health-care for everyone, and good quality housing for those most in need.
The third main focus of government is building a safer New Zealand. We will do this by addressing the drivers of crime and, specifically, by prioritising early interventions to stop people becoming criminals.
We will continue work on key areas where we know early intervention can help divert people from a life of crime. These include:
increasing maternity and early parenting support
targeting services at young people with behavioural and conduct problems
progressing legislation designed to minimise alcohol-related harm
and developing tools for diverting low-level offenders and providing additional support to those most at risk of offending.
I have given a very broad-brush idea of some of the major policy developments, but I also want to briefly touch on another very significant initiative: the cross-party constitutional review announced a couple of weeks before Christmas.
The review is deliberately wide-ranging and will include matters such as the size of Parliament, the length of the electoral term, Māori representation, the role of the Treaty of Waitangi and whether New Zealand needs a written constitution.
Traditionally, constitutional change has happened incrementally in New Zealand – by tinkering, really – rather than by looking at all our major constitutional arrangements together.
The constitutional review is a rare chance to stand back and take a fundamental look at what arrangements New Zealand needs for the 21st Century and beyond.
We understand that, to endure, constitutional changes need to have wide public and political understanding and support. That’s why we are running a cross-party process and are looking for wide public engagement. That may include a referendum in 2014, but what is more important is the national conversation that we have before then. That conversation needs to be about who, and what we are as a society, and not just about whether we should have fewer, or [God forbid] more MPs.
So you have a personal opportunity to help shape the nature of New Zealand in the next century. I hope you will take it.
That is the long-term, but the focus of government is, by necessity, more on the medium-term. I have set out the government’s vision of a stronger economy that can deliver the jobs and incomes New Zealanders need, supported by better and more effective public services and a safer society with more confidence.
I’ve called it the government’s vision, but it is really a vision for a better New Zealand that can only be achieved if we all play our part.
Women are absolutely critical to achieving that better future.
First, they are crucial to building a stronger economy and society.
For example, the largest single contribution to productivity in the last 30 years has come from women’s increased labour market participation – but we are still far from fully harnessing women’s economic potential.
And women also make a huge contribution behind the scenes. This includes doing the vast bulk of unpaid work in the home and in the community – around 70 percent of women’s work is unpaid, compared to 40 percent of men’s time. We need to value this more and ensure that the burden is more equally shared.
Women too, have a significant role in building better public services. Nearly 60 percent of public servants are women, but they make up less than 40 percent of senior managers. Making better use of women’s leadership skills is one of the keys to more effective and efficient public services.
And women have a very strong interest in building a safer and more resilient Aoteaoroa. New Zealand’s record of family violence and sexual violence is a cause of national shame, and women are overwhelmingly the victims of those crimes. Being and feeling safe is one of the most basic human needs and we cannot expect women to make a greater contribution in leadership or in the economy if, as a society, we do not ensure that they are safe in their own homes.
Women have so much more to offer, and part of that potential comes from the progress we have made over the last 25 years or so.
I’ll give you a few examples to illustrate what I mean:
Women under 50 are now generally more likely than men to have a university degree, but better qualifications are often not delivering the corresponding improvements in work opportunities or incomes. We may be more likely to have higher qualifications than a man, but we still struggle to get the top management and governance positions and we are likely to be paid less.
You may know that the gender pay gap is the lowest it has ever been – currently it is 10.6 percent, down from 13 percent a couple of years ago. That’s good news, but after 30 years of it being illegal to pay a woman less than a man for the same work, there should not be a gap at all.
Part of the problem is that women do not always sense the disadvantage, or at least not at the beginning. For instance, I think many women with a bachelor’s degree would be surprised to learn that, on average, they were being paid 6 percent less than their male colleagues just one year after graduation. After five years, and fewer promotions, they may be less surprised, but by then the gap has grown to 17 percent.
This tells us two things – besides the very obvious point that it is unfair. First, that we cannot rely on things like better educational outcomes to eliminate the gap on their own. And second, it’s not just women that are missing out – New Zealand is also a loser, because we are not making the best use of the huge investment we have made in education.
Women have also made huge strides in other areas.
More than 40 percent of those serving on government boards and committees are now women, in part because of the work of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs Nominations Service.
And the number of women in parliament and in local government has been increasing slowly but steadily. I sit in a House where a third of the MPs are women, and around a Cabinet table that has six women Ministers out of 20.
In fact, by world standards women in New Zealand do well. We rank highly in international surveys, such as the latest Global Gender Gap Report. There we are ranked fifth, just behind the Scandinavians.
So there is progress in most areas. That’s great, but the issue is that the pace of change is often positively glacial, even where the gap is big. We should be glad, for instance, that there has been a small increase in the number of women on the boards of our biggest public companies in the past two years. But at 9.3 percent of directorships – up from 8.7 percent – I don’t think I will be breaking out the Champagne. I’m impatient for change, especially when I see the Australians making bigger gains in a shorter period with a series of initiatives that have come from the business community itself.
And there are some areas where it is difficult to discern improvements at all, or where positive change has yet to flow through to significant improvement on the ground.
I’m thinking here of family violence and sexual violence – crimes that have a huge and negative impact on women and on New Zealand as a whole. We can measure the economic impact, and that is horrifying enough on its own – over $5 billion a year for family violence and around $1.2 billion a year for sexual violence. What we can’t measure is the human suffering and lifetime damage that goes with these crimes. We simply have to do better, and that means changing society, not just changing laws. Government has a role, but can’t do it on its own. We need to work with communities to change the attitudes that allow violence to continue.
So reducing violence against women is one of my top priorities as Minister.
There is some excellent work being done to change attitudes to family violence – such as the ‘It’s not OK’ campaign – and the Ministry has made a major contribution to that work, mostly behind the scenes.
The most significant work on violence undertaken by the Ministry in recent years, however, has been on sexual violence. It has chosen this focus, not just because of the terrible impacts sexual violence has on women, but because it is an area where few others were doing work.
The Ministry has small resources and it is important that it uses them in areas that can make the most difference. With its ground-breaking research on effective interventions for adult survivors of sexual violence it has established itself as a leader in this field. I have asked MWA to continue their work on sexual violence, with a specific focus on addressing repeat victimisation.
It has been calculated that more than 70 percent of sexual offences are suffered by just 2 percent of women. We simply have to do better for these women.
As I indicated earlier, being safe, and being able to live without fear are the bedrock without which it is pointless to think about women having good choices in other areas of their lives, such as finding a well-paying job.
But we don’t just want women to survive – we want them to thrive.
So my second priority for New Zealand women is to ensure that they can be fully engaged in the economy and can make the maximum possible contribution to New Zealand’s future prosperity.
The OECD understands that making better use of women’s skills is key to increasing productivity and raising New Zealand’s standard of living, and has said so.
Although women’s overall labour force participation rate is at an all time high, there is still more potential. As I indicated earlier, there is also clear evidence that we are not making best use of the skills and experience of women already in work.
As is often the case, the top-line numbers obscure a more complex picture. Women’s overall labour force participation rates are high by world standards – we are ranked 9th in the OECD – but we also have high rates of women in part-time work, and our rate of engagement in the core child-bearing years of 30 to 34 is much lower – in this demographic we are ranked 24th in the OECD.
And while the drop in the pay gap is encouraging, the underlying causes of the gender pay gap remain. These include occupational segregation, women’s greater responsibility for unpaid work – particularly child-care – and gender discrimination.
These are all focus areas for the Ministry. The Ministry will continue its work on issues such as breaking-down occupational segregation. I have also asked MWA to investigate how we might better support the translation of women’s improved skills and educational outcomes into improved employment outcomes. That’s policy-speak for saying that I think that, if you have a good degree, you should get a good job, with a good promotion and be paid as much as someone with a similar degree who happens to wear trousers – and there should be something we can do to help that happen.
The third priority area for me and for the Ministry is women in leadership. I have already talked a little about how New Zealand is missing out by not making better use of women’s leadership skills.
There is good international evidence that shows a positive correlation between women in leadership and corporate performance. This includes a study of Fortune 500 companies – the biggest businesses in the US – which shows that the companies with the most women directors are significantly more profitable than those with few or no women directors.
I am taking a best-practice approach to women’s leadership and am focusing on:
the package of skills that boards need, and the skills that women can bring to boards, rather than the gender of members per se
and closing the gap with Australia with regard to women’s participation on company boards.
The Ministry is also doing some very practical things to help board-ready women find suitable governance roles, including producing a unique interactive self-assessment tool called ‘my board strengths’. You can find the tool on the women on boards pages of the Ministry’s website. Try it – I think you will find it really useful in judging your current skills and where they could be used.
So giving women better choices, and making better use of their qualifications, skills and experience are key to a better future for New Zealand.
I have outlined government’s vision for New Zealand and my priorities for my Women’s Affairs portfolio, but this is not just a government issue.
If we could fix things simply by passing more laws and by ever better policy interventions, then I would not be here talking to you about what still needs to be done.
The fact is, we need your help.
We need to change the attitudes, and expectations, and behaviours that underpin everything from the pay gap, to the poor use of women’s leadership skills and the cycle of family violence.
Government’s can’t change attitudes – only people can do that. We have to speak up more as individuals and challenge the attitudes we encounter at work, on the sidelines at the kids’ rugby and netball, and at home.
There are also some specific things that you can do, as engaged citizens and members of non-government organisations.
It would help, for instance, if we could all agree on one definition of the pay gap. Some years ago the Ministry of Women’s Affairs adopted a measure that it judged provided the most accurate reflection of the gap. Not the smallest – you can always choose another method that comes up with a smaller or a larger number – just what the experts believe to be the most accurate.
That measure has been used by at least the last six Ministers of Women’s Affairs, from both Labour- and National-led governments, but every time the subject comes up in the media, someone introduces a different measure that better suits their needs at the time.
The confusion this causes does not benefit any of us who are committed to eliminating the gap. It simply gives comfort to those who would like to think that, if we can’t agree how big the gap is, maybe it doesn’t exist.
We also need to do better at identifying and articulating the causes of ongoing disparity. We also need to spend more time talking to those who need to change, and rather less time repeating our own mantras to those who are essentially fighting for the same things.
We are human. We will – thank heavens – always have differing views on how best to achieve the times we want for New Zealand women.
But at the high level is there really a debate? Is there anyone, who is actively engaged in women’s issues, who does not want women to have better jobs; to be fully and fairly rewarded for their efforts; to lead, where they have the skills; and to live without violence or the fear of it.
You are ultimately not the people I most need to convince – and neither am I the person you need to change.
The people we both need to be working on are those – mostly men – who make the decisions; and the women – especially young women – who make the choices which can change the future or continue the status quo.
To do that, we need to speak the language that they understand, which is not always the language of gender rights.
And finally there is a very personal and direct way you can help.
If you are interested in governance roles – or know of women who have the right skills – ensure that you make your interest known both formally and informally.
You can do it formally by registering on the Ministry’s Nominations database. You can find how to do this on the Ministry’s website, where you will also find a wealth of information and tools to help you judge your level of skills and where they could be used.
And you can do it informally by raising it in conversations with male colleagues, friends and family, and by turning up at events where decision-makers are likely to be and making yourself and your ambitions known. Men are much better at this than women, and it is one reason why they may be more top-of-mind when it comes to board roles.
I’ve talked a lot today about the potential of women and how it can be better used to build a fairer, richer, safer New Zealand.
I’m sure that there is potential in the room today that can be used to help achieve that vision.
Kia kaha. Be strong, and use it. You will thank yourself and New Zealand will benefit.