Political roundup: The Rise of gender politics and feminism

The Labour benches unimpressed with a ruling from The Speaker, David Carter, during question time in Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Feminism is on the rise. This year has seen a greater focus on gender issues than perhaps ever before. In this extended column Bryce Edwards looks back on one of the most important trends in New Zealand politics in 2015

By Bryce Edwards

A variety of different gender issues have been part of the political conversation in New Zealand this year. Some have been focused at the elite level - such as how to get more women into the ranks of the political or financial establishment. Other debates have been about attitudes, ideas and behaviours - especially "casual sexism" - but also about domestic violence. And another focus has been on the women at the bottom of the heap - those struggling on low pay.

The variety of gender politics stories show how feminist politics has now moved from the margins into the mainstream. Now it seems almost everyone wants to call themselves a feminist - from Judith Collins through to Police Commissioner Mike Bush.

Who is a feminist?

Are you a feminist? It's becoming increasing popular to identify as feminist, even if you're a man, and especially if you're a politician. This year has seen a surge of concern about gender inequality, discrimination and the degraded position of women in many aspects of New Zealand life. A number of high profile advocates for women's rights have spoken out recently. And many of these are men: a campaign was launched on Friday to get men on board the feminist struggle - see Simon Collins' Men sign up to feminist cause.

Much of the debate about feminism equates "being a feminist" with being "pro-women" or in favour of women's equality and human rights. This categorisation is fraught, and makes nearly everyone a feminist at one level or another. Certainly amongst the men signing up to the "HeforShe" campaign there are a few surprises - some of the more high profile are: Police Commissioner Mike Bush, Governor-General Jerry Mateparae, Gareth Morgan, Wallace Chapman and Jack Tame. Of course David Cunliffe was at the forefront of this movement last year with his apology for being a man.

Not all male commentators are impressed with the "HeforShe" campaign - Chris Trotter gives his reasons in a blog post, Window Dressing A Dark Reality: Why I won't be signing on to "HeForShe" anytime soon. But for a different view on why men should be standing up on gender issues, see Johnny Moore's Here's why I'm a feminist.

It's obviously not just middle-aged men rallying to the feminist cause. The above articles simply point to the more mainstream and surprising new voices of gender politics. The feminist label is being adopted more readily now amongst teenagers, after a period of reluctance to use this term. Back in May, Jeremy Olds wrote a feature story about The rise of high school feminism. In this, students explain why they have been setting up feminist clubs.

Plenty of other prominent men and women have made pronouncements about feminism this year. Comedian Michele A'Court published a book - Stuff I Forgot to Tell My Daughter - largely about gender issues and "the fourth wave of feminism", and she was the subject of an interesting interview with Philip Matthews - see: Michele A'Court is trying to make NZ feminism fun.

TV3 broadcaster Paul Henry got himself into trouble earlier in the year when he disagreed with Hillary Clinton and Helen Clark allegedly running for office on the basis of their gender - watch the six-minute video: Dr Jackie Blue: Paul Henry wrong on feminism. He also received an interesting response from Narelle Henson - see: Paul Henry, feminism and disagreeing with Dr Jackie Blue. See also Rodney Hide's Blue misses point on feminism.

National's progress with women

Feminism used to be associated with the political left, but today's feminist agendas are often pushed from the political right, including within the National Party. Probably the most prominent MP speaking out this year on gender issues has been National's Judith Collins. In May she talked about her feminism and what it means to her, stating "I've been a feminist a lot longer than most people. I've been a feminist all my life" - see the NBR's Lifelong feminist Judith Collins wants cabinet job back.

This was in a 10-minute interview with Heather du Plessis-Allen on TVNZ's Q+A - see: Judith Collins wants Cabinet job back - 'It's up to the PM'. And Nikki Kaye commented last month on her own gender politics - see Catherine Fu's Nikki Kaye on following her conscience, feminism and what she'd tell her 20-year-old self.

Women ministers have been increasingly visible in John Key's National Government this year, with Amy Adams, Paula Bennett, Maggie Barry and Anne Tolley all being foils to an at times "very blokey" administration, according to the NBR's Rob Hosking - see his (paywalled) column, Government's women ministers to the fore.

Hosking outlines the increasingly strong role of the Government's female ministers and argues, "This highlighting of National's women ministers could be dismissed as coincidence but that seems a stretch. It certainly isn't tokenism, however: most of these initiatives are part of the business of the government this year, in some cases major parts of it."

Justice Minister Amy Adams has been lauded for her progress on gender issues. Since taking on her justice job she has made domestic violence reform her top priority, which in August received backing from opposition parties - see Andrea Vance's Killing the family pet could become a crime in law overhaul.

And Adams' establishment of the new role of Chief Victims Advisor, and especially her appointment of longtime campaigner Kim Mcgregor to the role, has been very well received amongst women's groups - see Shane Cowlishaw's Rape prevention campaigner Kim Mcgregor appointed new Chief Victims Advisor.

There have been other gender initiatives for which the Government has received praise - for example last month trade unions and the Greens congratulated National on establishing a joint group to deal with establishing the principles for working out how to apply equal pay rules across industries - see Peter Wilson and Sarah Robson's Government hailed for equal pay initiative.

National's problem with women

John Key's "rapist" allegations in the debate about the Australian detention centres has clearly made the Prime Minister vulnerable to counter-allegations that he's insensitive to rape victims and gender issues. His refusal to apologise for any offence caused has been criticised by the Herald - see it's editorial, Why John Key should say sorry.


And the Herald's political editor Audrey Young says the episode "suggests he is willing to squander his reserves of political capital - in particular with women" - see: Key attack leaves him offside with women. Fellow columnist Paul Little paints Key as an old-fashioned male chauvinist for how he has handled his opponents: "he is about old-fashioned values, like putting women in their place, teaching them to be seen and not heard, and never backing down or apologising, especially when you're in the wrong" - see: John Key put those women in their place.

But National's Michelle Boag has received even more heated criticism for her judgements on the women MPs who walked out of Parliament. She accused them of "parading their victimhood" - see Sam Sachdeva's MPs who shared sexual assault stories 'paraded their victimhood' - Michelle Boag.

The strongest response came from Alison Mau - see her RadioLive article: Michelle Boag, when is it okay for victims to speak up? And the Southland Times also called her comments "arrant rubbish. Stunningly so" - see the editorial, Boag wrong to rain on "victimhood parade''.

Others on the left were quick to condemn - see Chris Trotter's Victimisers On Parade: National Demonstrates Why It's Unfit To Govern A Decent Country, Jessie Hume's Michelle Boag Thinks Survivors Should Shut Up and Rachael Goldsmith's Open Letter to Michelle Boag. But not all lefties were hostile to Boag's position - see socialist activist Philip Ferguson's Memo to NZ's cosseted bourgeois politicians: No, Christmas Island actually isn't about you.

Sexism in parliamentary politics

Debate continues about whether the National Government will be harmed by John Key's controversial "rapist" comments, with Patrick Gower reporting last week National still ahead in polls despite 'rapist' remarks.

But this is only the latest in a line of contentious debates this year about sexism in politics. A couple of months ago, it was all about Labour's fast-rising new star, and whether she was being unfairly categorised - see my column at the time, Jacinda Ardern and the "pretty little thing" debate. See also, Ardern's blog post, I am a feminist.

This episode led to further examination of gender issues in Parliament. TVNZ's Q+A put together a 12-minute panel discussion on Sexism and politics, featuring Judith Collins, Annette King, Julie Anne Genter and Claire Robinson. And RNZ's Amelia Langford asked: How sexist is New Zealand politics?. For more on the topic you can also listen to her 18-minute Focus on Politics for 30 October 2015.

This has fuelled even more concern about the under-representation of women in politics - particularly Parliament and Cabinet. The Green Party has responded with an announcement from co-leader James Shaw that "half of its Cabinet will be women if it enters Government" - see Isaac Davison's Green Party to have 50/50 split men and women.

This received praise from bloggers - see, for example, No Right Turn's A commitment to equality. But not all agreed that it was the best way to deal with the problem - listen to Rachel Smalley's one-minute talk, Gender quota misses the point. See also James Shaw's interview with Ben Mack About gender equality, quotas, the pay gap and the future of New Zealand.

Women at the top

It's a sign of how mainstream feminism has become, that today much of the gender politics agenda is about the women at the top - the broadcasters, CEOs, politicians and others in positions of power. There is currently a particular focus on women in business - see, for example, Fran O'Sullivan's article from Saturday: Women's arrival at top taking too long. In this, O'Sullivan celebrates "that women are finally taking their place at the top tables of New Zealand business", but laments that the changes are happening too slowly.

Continued below.

Related Content

TVNZ chair Joan Withers. Photo / David Kerr
TVNZ chair Joan Withers. Photo / David Kerr

O'Sullivan draws attention to Joan Withers winning the "Chairperson of the Year" title at the Deloitte Top 200 awards last week. Withers, who chairs Mighty River Power and TVNZ, earlier in the month also won the supreme prize in the Women of Influence awards. For more on her victory, and the other category winners, such as the Ministry for the Environment's Vicky Robertson and the Defence Force's Karyn Thompson - see Stuff's Joan Withers supreme woman of influence.

Over time the position of women in business might be improving, but it's recently gone backwards - see Tess McClure's Women losing boardroom battle. She reports "The number of women in business management has dropped dramatically in the last two years, reaching a ten-year low in 2014."

This week Rachel Smalley suggested that publicly-listed companies need a quota imposed on them to ensure 25 per cent of each company's directors are female - see: Quotas needed to diversify NZX boards.

Smalley uses the example of businesswomen Diana Foreman not being on any company boards. Yet while Foreman herself is also campaigning for more women on boards and in business, she opposes quotas. According to Holly Ryan, "Ms Foreman disagreed with having a quota system, with companies needing to put the people with the best skills in the job rather than a woman for the sake of gender diversity" - see: Rich-lister: Women the secret to success.

Foreman has recently published a book, In the Arena, which is "about getting to the top and why she thinks businesses need to work harder to get more females into executive and board roles". See also Fiona Rotherham's article, Diane Foreman says women need help to be entrepreneurs, not a ministry of women's affairs.

Some businesses are clearly doing better than others - for some positive stories see John Anthony's Sovereign NZ CEO's gender equality work gets UN nod and Tao Lin's Gender pay gap still there: so what are we doing about it?

There are also problems in the public sector with a lack of diversity at the top, as detailed by Bernard Orsman in his mid-year feature, Auckland's Super City club: Who's running our city? White men from wealthy suburbs. See also Hayden Donnell's White Men in Charge: It's Not Just Auckland Council.

But the State Services Commission report released last week suggests there has been significant progress in terms of the employment of women in the public service, albeit with a significant pay gap - see Paul Purcell's More female bosses, but still less pay. According to this report, "Female bosses in the public sector have increased by 23 percent between 2010 and 2015 with women now in charge of 39 percent of all public sector departments."

In terms of the pay gap between public sector males and females, the Commission says, "When adjusted for occupation, seniority and experience, the average pay gap falls by two-thirds" - see Fiona Rotherham's More women than ever in public service - but paid 14% less.

The legal profession is also biased at the top, according to last week's top 50 most influential legal experts put together by Lawfuel - see: The Power List. Only 15 women make the list (including Mai Chen, Una Jagose, Deborah Chambers, and Jane Kelsey). See also Alex Mason's Call for more female QCs.

More positively, the University of Canterbury law school will soon be led by two women, "for the first time in its 142-year history" - see Jody O'Callaghan's University of Canterbury has first female law dean in Ursula Cheer. The Police also are making progress in the gender make up of staff - see Talia Shadwell's Women a growing force in police ranks.

For an overview of the position of "Women In Power" and other gender progress, see Simon Collins' report, Women face battle for equality. In addition to this, it's worth noting that the recently-released World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2015 has New Zealand jumping up three places to the ranking of number ten - see the report for New Zealand.

Casual (and serious) sexism

Much of the renewed feminist focus in politics is about highlighting some of the behaviours, stereotypes and beliefs that are said to be rampant in a sexist New Zealand. The problem of so-called "casual sexism" was outlined well by Alison Mau back in March with her column, The curse of #casualsexism. This referred not just to the everyday gender discrimination experienced by many women, but also to TVNZ's Facebook post of "Vote For Our Sexiest Female Presenter". Similarly, see Aimie Cronin's I'm not sexist but....and Shelley Bridgeman's Sexism is alive and well.


Lizzy Marvelly has also raised related issues in her blog post, When did New Zealand become so sexist?. This is on Marvelly's new website, Villainesse which she launched in May, as explained in the news report Lizzie Marvelly sings out to give women a voice.

Marvelly's site contains plenty of gender politics content, such as I shave my legs and don't have a cat. Can I still be a feminist?, and The Villainesse Guide to not being sexist, chauvinistic or misogynistic in 2015.

Marvelly has also been behind the It's My Body. My Terms. campaign, which hopes "to shift attitudes about consent and sexual violence" - see the Herald's report, Stars support new campaign to shift views about consent.

Many other types of sexism in society have been closely examined this year. Academic Nicola Gaston has a new book out - Why Science is Sexist. For a summary of this, see her article, Sexism is still one of science's biggest issues. See also, Kim Savage's five-minute item on TVNZ's Q+A: Sexism and science. You can also listen to feminist blogger Deborah Russell talk about the issues in her 17-minute interview about the topic on RNZ: The Pundits: Feminism.

Domestic and gender violence

Chris Brown. Photo / AP
Chris Brown. Photo / AP

Possibly the single most controversial item published on the topic of gender and domestic violence this year was Rachel Stewart's New Zealand has reached the pinnacle of world number one in domestic violence. In this she laid the blame and the solution for domestic violence "firmly at the feet of men" and called for some tough physical responses to the offending men.

The scheduled upcoming tour of singer Chris Brown has been controversial due to his record of domestic violence, leading to an interesting debate about whether he should be allowed in the country. Various Maori women leaders came out on his side in September (including Dames Tariana Turia, June Jackson and June Mariu) - see David Fisher's Chris Brown - Dame Tariana Turia says let him in. But many feminists wanted him barred - see Nicholas Jones's Judith Collins: Chris Brown 'just another wife-beater'. But, in this case Jan Logie took issue with the National MP's "new persona" of feminism - see: Judith Collins can't talk about Chris Brown without making her own apologies.

Then in October Tony Veitch once again became the topic of debate when he made controversial statements on Facebook - see Laura Mcquillan's Tony Veitch's latest rant shows an appalling lack of self-awareness.

Women at the bottom

Although much of the attention of gender politics is focused on helping women "at the top" of society, or dealing with sexist stereotypes and behaviour, some is focused more on economic structures and how they impact on women at the bottom.

For Deborah Hill Cone, much of the focus on "casual sexism" is banal when more serious gender discrimination is going on, and so she responded to Alison Mau's column on "The curse of casual sexism" by saying: "What I do care about is the reality of the economic power of women, especially older women and minority women. This matters more to me than the objectification of television presenters. Like most things in life, it all comes down to money" - see: Let's turn focus to women's pay.

It's low pay that is probably the biggest problem for women at the bottom of the socio-economic heap. And this year has seen a renewed focus on issues of equal pay for such workers. Much of this attention on working womens' pay is due to the landmark case of aged-care worker Kristine Bartlett, which was explained by employment lawyer Christie Hall at the start of the year in her opinion piece, Where next for equal pay. See also her eight-minute interview with Corin Dann on Q+A: Equal pay for all.

In October the Government responded to the court case by setting up a joint working group to help negotiate a settlement and a fix for women in low paid industries affected by unequal pay - see Kiri Gillespie's Carers move closer to pay equity deal. See also, June Francis' A Salute to Kristine Bartlett, and Bronwen Beechey's Fight for Equal Pay continues.

In terms of the on-going gender pay gap, some interesting explanations are put forward by economist Geoff Simmons in his five-minute video trying to locate the causes - see: What is the cause of the gender pay gap? See also, Simon Collins' Women's pay drops further behind men's. But it's also worth considering David Farrar's blog post, NZ has lowest gender wage gap in the OECD.

Finally, is the increase in gender politics a win for the political left? Leftwing activist Phillip Ferguson has some doubts about this, suggesting that feminism, along with other liberal-left ideologies, has merely served to bolster the status quo - see: Respect for diversity': modern NZ capitalism's necessary ideology.

Debate on this article is now closed.

Share this article



10:20 am Thursday 10 March 2016
Good on you Lizzy Marvelly and others. It's great to see young women (and others) with a feminist voice when NZ can be really misogynist.


- New Zealand
04:06 pm Sunday 06 December 2015
Well that's true, Owl.
I doubt if women would have even got the vote in Britain without decent, kind-hearted men supporting them.

(Even Churchill was against votes for women.)

The same with abolishing slavery in the US.

White men have done a hang of a lot of good in this world, probably most of the good, and many still do.

Women need to give credit where it is due.

As for "hypergamy"..let's face it.. most Western men get a kick out of supporting and doing stuff for their women.

Didn't some philosopher say that Western civilisation is the result of the male sexual urge being channelled into creating/inventing things?


- Auckland Central
09:52 am Sunday 06 December 2015
Excuse me herald, how can you promote womens rights when TV3 still promote hypergamy, with their pimping a man bachelor show. I mentioned this on nzdating boards n wham i got banned. Then theirs the UNs HeForShe program, girls cant seem to do everything. While feminism hates the patriarchy, it wouldnt exist without white mens privilege.
Argue against that premise.


- New Zealand
02:36 pm Friday 04 December 2015
Really really basic stuff Real-isn't.

People who are abused power down on the next level! Husbands hit wives, wives take it out on kids. The same thing applies in racist & all hierarchical systems.

The other reason is that people tend to do as done by; so if the mother's parents had been beaters, she will be too. Applies to either gender.

There are exceptions, people who LEARN, but even then many revert under stress.


- St Heliers
02:36 pm Friday 04 December 2015
I'm not being patronising. I have always supported womens rights, and never dictated what they should do. You are being a little too suspicious or paranoid about my comments.

We just need to ensure we avoid quotas where we have token women, or token men, or token artists, or token whatever. I dont think we need that. Just employ the best qualified person for the position.

You say gender discrimination is rife, but the gender pay gap of 12% has been put down mainly to differences in career choices using simple statistical analysis. About 3% is due to gender discrimination. This appears more common in the professions sadly to say.

Of course theres no justification for discrimination, but the only thing government can do is have strong laws and penalties and make sure government departments are totally fair. What else would you do?

There are some injusticies against women, but not everything is a secret injustice or plot. Lets be accurate about things, and then the appropriate response is clearer.

Zavier Onassis

- New Zealand
02:50 pm Thursday 03 December 2015
'More women in business. Fine by you, Gandalf?' Unfortunately, implicit in that simple, apparently innocuous phrase, is a patronising undercurrent that pervades the explicitly misogynistic rants elsewhere in these responses. Who are men to sanction what women can do?

Why would you think, for example, that these women wouldn't be decently qualified, when you be unlikely to make the same assumption about men? Gender discrimination is rife, and if you think New Zealand laws mitigate that fact you are quite deluded I'm sorry to say.

of The old sage

- New Zealand
02:49 pm Thursday 03 December 2015
We are headed down the track of gender/race politics that would have been unthinkable not so many years ago. Once the door is booted open we will see 'quota' appointments made with democracy coming a distant last.

Maori, women, gay, transgender, disabled the list will go on and on and at the end of the day we will be the poorer for it as nothing in the mix assures quality of 'appointee' at all.

This is the agenda. Get rid of the democratic process and it becomes so much easier to force the 'state' will upon the disenfranchised majority. Meanwhile the 'feminists' refuse to speak out at the way Muslim women are treated world wide and even here. Priorities?


- Auckland
02:49 pm Thursday 03 December 2015
About that 'Gender and violence' section. So its all mens fault... or is it?

Not when it comes to children. There is that recent study by University of Otago Professor David Fergusson which showed NZ Mothers killed more children than any other group in society.

Fergusson noted "...the public perception that men were the perpetrators of most domestic violence was the result of biased publicity" and "the proper message is that both gender groups have a capacity for domestic violence [and] women probably perpetrate more assaults on children than men do". Hmmm.


- New Zealand
02:48 pm Thursday 03 December 2015
I'm getting sick of ...ism's.

I'm especially sick of people seeing them where they don't exist or creating them to support a personal view point.


- South Auckland
02:48 pm Thursday 03 December 2015
It's all smoke and mirrors!

Take the J-Law gripe about being paid less than her stupid male co-stars (who support her complaint). In depth analysis show that for time spent on set she earned double her male co-stars and 4 times her female co-star who is the one who could be aggrieved but really she got what she deserved. Then their is the stupid Cate Blanchet who thinks they should all get paid equally. Really? How about she gets the same pay as the guy who holds the microphone which is probably more gruelling mentally and physically.

You get paid according to your ability to draw a crowd and what you're willing to accept and negotiating ability.


- South Auckland
02:48 pm Thursday 03 December 2015
It's simple. They're lying for political purpose.

But then a woman always has to be believed when sexual abuse is alleged unless of course that man accused is Bill Clinton or some other powerful lefty. Ask Hillary about this, she knows!


- New Zealand
02:48 pm Thursday 03 December 2015
"however most of the 12% gender pay gap seems to be career choices women make, according to research."

To a certain extent. Yet I recall the time when male nurses were paid more than female 1s, & I'm not talking back before Equal Pay & Opp.

But that's always been the way under Patriarchy - once an occupation etc becomes very popular with women, men move out of it, & it gets 2nd class treatment. It is probably because men opted out of teaching to such a large degree that teachers' pay has stagnated.


- New Zealand
02:48 pm Thursday 03 December 2015
Ah, you really are showing sexist bias, You KNOW.

It comes over in the social-type threads here.

& using that link again when I explained to you that it originated with an anti-feminist who belongs to the neocon American Enterprise Institute. Shame on you .


- New Zealand
02:48 pm Thursday 03 December 2015
We can add this to "our children is learning" type of quote I think...


- New Zealand
02:48 pm Thursday 03 December 2015
Down with universities....brilliant. What an enlightening discourse. There is a constructive way to debate this you know. "...ivory tower liberal socialists feminists welfare recipients aka university". It's like a big red flag.
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