“Women, Equality, Power”: my lecture at Global Development Institute, University of Manchester, UK; 15 November 2018.

It was a pleasure to give the Annual Lecture at the Global Lecture Development Institute at the University of Manchester this month. I spoke of the importance of gender equality and of women in political leadership and decision-making. The full text is here:

                                           Rt Hon Helen Clark

                                      “Women, Equality,Power”

Global Development Institute of University of   Manchester Annual Lecture, Manchester, United Kingdom.

               5.30 pm, Thursday 15 November 2018.

My thanks go to the Global Development Institute for its invitation to me to deliver this annual lecture. I have taken as my theme the importance of having women in decision-making positions and of gender equality in general – both in their own right and to increase the prospects of achieving inclusive development.

I will be drawing on two sets of experiences:

  • My many years in the New Zealand political system and crashing through its layers of glass ceilings, and
  • Eight years of leading the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Development Group which gave me the privilege of engaging very widely with women around the world and learning of their hopes, dreams, and achievements.

My starting assumption is that full gender equality and women’s participation in every field and at all levels is,as Hilary Clinton once famously said, not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do. Quite simply:

  • Decision-making is better if women play a full part in it and bring the perspectives of women to the table. This applies in the public and private spheres. Not all women do actively bring those perspectives,but it’s my observation that most do.
  • Economies are stronger and living standards are higher if women are engaged in them on an equal footing. On this:
  • The McKinsey Global Institute has estimated that if women participated in the economy identically to men, 26 per cent, or $28 trillion, would be added to global GDP by 2025 compared to a business as usual scenario. They calculate that that’s an amount roughly equivalent to the combined size of the Chinese and American economies. That demonstrates the huge extent of economic loss from gender inequality.

(b)  UNDP’s 2016 Africa Human Development Report calculated that the cost of gender inequality to Sub-Saharan Africa is USD95 billion a year – or six per cent of the region’s GDP. This hampers the drive for inclusive human development.

  • Societies are more inclusive and just when women enjoy equal rights and status across the board.

A much-quoted imperative of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to “leave no one behind”. The goals and targets set in that agenda cannot be met without the full inclusion of women. Gender equality has a dedicated SDG (5) and is also mainstreamed across the other goals.

The New Zealand experience:

This year in New Zealand, there has been a lot of debate about gender equality. We have been celebrating the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage with events and other initiatives across the country over many months, and there has been a lot of traditional and social media engagement.

This has been occurring in a year when we have a new, young, woman Prime Minister who has attracted global attention, and also in a year when #MeToo has had local salience with the exposure of sexual harassment and violence in a leading law firm.

We have been reflecting on how remarkable it was that in 1893 an all-male parliament in one of the world’s most geographically isolated countries agreed to legislate for women to have the right to vote – after a concerted campaign by women from all sectors of society.

It would be an exaggeration to say that we made rapid progress thereafter; after all:

  • It wasn’t until 1919 that women were permitted to stand as parliamentary candidates. Local government, however, was more progressive: in 1894, a woman in the Auckland borough of Onehunga became the first female mayor elected anywhere n the British Empire – she was preceded globally only by a woman mayor in a small town in Kansas, USA.
  • In 1933, New Zealand’s first woman MP was elected.
  • In 1947, the first woman Cabinet Minister was appointed.
  • In 1981 when I was first elected as an MP, women made up only nine per cent of our parliament.

But then the pace did begin to pick up: by 1993, women were twenty per cent of our MPs; with the introduction of proportional representation that rose to thirty per cent in 1996, and today it stands at over 38 per cent – a level from which it’s conceivable to think of achieving gender parity in two or three elections with the good will of political parties.

As well, New Zealand has had:

  • three women Prime Ministers in the past two decades – women have held that post for more than half of the past 21 years;
  • three women Governors-General in the past three decades – that’s half the total of six Governors-General in that time;
  • for the second time in our history,three of our top four constitutional positions located within New Zealand are currently held by women – that of Governor-General, Prime Minister, and Chief Justice. For close to a year in 2005/6, all four such positions, which include that of the Speaker of Parliament, were occupied by women.
  • Women have been Cabinet Secretary, head of the country’s largest company, and heads of government departments and professional associations. Role models for young women abound.

Despite all the progress though, we ask ourselves the question: are we there yet? Indeed, an exhibition in the Auckland Museum is on exactly that theme.

  • The Global Gender Gap Report places New Zealand in ninth best place, and in the last UNDP Gender Development Index based on 2016 data, it stood at 13th.
  • Our gender pay gap measured by median hourly wages stands at 9.2 per cent.
  • A recent study showed that the proportion of women in senior management positions had fallen. Our proportion of women on state sector boards and committees stands at 45.7 per cent, and the Government has targeted fifty per cent by 2021. The private sector figures are woeful – women make up only nineteen per cent of the boards of companies listed on the New Zealand Stock Exchange.
  • We have high rates of domestic and family violence – reportedly the highest in the OECD. This is shameful and needs concerted, consistent, and long-term action to address it. Nothing is more destructive of women’s confidence and potential than violence in the home and community.

So – despite undoubted success in many areas, New Zealand still has its gender equality challenges.

The global framework for gender equality

Advocacy for gender equality doesn’t exist in a normative vacuum: it’s been a core human rights principle from 1948 when it was enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt as the Chair of the first United Nations Human Rights Commission was surely important in achieving that.

Since then,  

  • The UN has convened the major agenda-setting world women’s conferences in Mexico City, Copenhagen, Nairobi, and Beijing;
  • Member States agreed to the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and support its reporting processes,
  • The annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women meets in New York each year, setting the direction for progress and providing a major platform for civil society advocacy and engagement,
  • Gender is mainstreamed in the UN-led sustainable development agenda and in the programming of its development and humanitarian agencies, and
  • UN Women was created to lead the international effort on gender equality in 2010.

But not all is plain sailing for gender equality at the UN. It has experienced a number of #MeToo moments within its organisations, and shameful incidents of sexual and gender-based violence by its peacekeepers have been recorded.

In the normal course of events, major conferences like the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 would have been expected to have major twenty-year anniversary conferences to update their agendas. That didn’t happen – because it was assessed that the mood among Member States could have produced a roll back from the high-water marks reached in Beijing and Cairo. That is troubling.

As well, the UN’s top position has remained closed to women – a topic about which I personally could write a book – but I am very hopeful that the next and tenth Secretary-General will be a woman. After more than seven and a half decades, surely it will be time.

So, are gender gaps overall reducing as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century?

The not so good news is that apparently, they are not.The 2017 Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum told a rather depressing story.

It showed a widening gap on each of the four dimensions it measured: educational attainment, health and longevity, and economic and political empowerment.

On current trends, the World Economic Forum forecasts that it would take 100 years to close the overall gender gap, 217 years to achieve parity in the workplace (across wages, seniority and participation), and 99 years to achieve equal numbers of women and men elected to parliaments.

This is surely utterly unacceptable.

In the area of leadership, the numbers of women globally are very low. As of March this year, women were only:

  • 7.2 per cent of Heads of State,
  • 5.7 per cent of Heads of Government,
  • 23.3 per cent of parliamentarians,
  • around twenty per cent of Fortune 500 company board members last year,
  • around fifteen per cent of corporate board membership according to the Credit Suisse surveys of some 3,000 global companies, and in
  • under a quarter of senior management roles in the private sector. Information for the public sector is sketchy but appears to be not dissimilar.

These inequalities are persisting in spite of the clear advantages of having women in leadership positions.

In the corporate world, study after study finds that companies with more women on boards get better financial results. That’s hardly a surprise – those boards stand to be more attuned to the attitudes and behaviours of whole populations, rather than of just one-half of them.

In parliaments and in ministries, a critical mass of women is needed for the perspectives of women to be well reflected in legislation and decision-making – and even just to get issues on the national agenda as priorities. The international evidence suggests that when the numbers of women parliamentarians reach significant numbers,issues previously unaddressed, but of importance to women, will come to the fore – not least those dealing with access to public services and addressing violence against women.

I personally take pride in a number of signature policies and programmes supportive of women advanced on my watch – going back to my time as Minister of Health almost thirty years ago when I led the passage of legislation establishing midwifery as an autonomous profession, and established cervical and breast cancer screening,and including my years as Prime Minister when paid parental leave became available as of right along with twenty hours free paid early childhood education and care for three and four year olds. Other measures like the abolition of interest on student loans were also of disproportionate benefit to women.

So – what can be done to grow the numbers of women in decision-making?

There are proactive steps we can take to grow the numbers of women in leadership, but we also need to ensure that women are more fairly represented across all levels of the economic, social, and political organisation of societies. Getting into leadership positions normally involves a progression up the ranks – but women may find it difficult to get on the first rung of the ladder, and when they do, they may find that some rungs are missing for them.

The World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law Report in 2016 found that:

  • around 155 countries have at least one law which discriminates against women,
  • 100 countries put restrictions on what work women can do, and
  • women in eighteen countries cannot get a job without their husband’s permission.

In research compiled for this year’s report, the Bank found that 1.4 billion women lack legal protection against “domestic economic violence” –defined as “controlling a woman’s ability to access economic resources as a form of intimidation and coercion”, and more than one billion women lack protection against domestic sexual violence.

Taken together, these factors amount to significant barriers to women getting ahead. Women need full economic independence, they need access to sexual and reproductive health services, they need to be able to determine if, who, and when they marry, they need safety in their homes and communities, and they need the laws which are supposed to protect their rights upheld. Only then can we expect to see major progress on women’s leadership globally.

For the most part in developed countries, the barriers set out above have been overcome.  Yet others remain. There are, for example, persistent gender pay gaps between men and women. These are perpetuated variously by:

  •  work in female-dominated occupations being remunerated less than that in male-dominated occupations;
  • the different life cycle patterns of women and men, which see more women taking time out for family responsibilities, and then often not catching up in seniority with male counterparts who had continuous work service. Globally,three of every four hours of unpaid work are done by women. On current patterns, these pressures will only increase as our populations age, as it is women who do most of the unpaid elder care work.
  • outright pay discrimination.Even as venerable an institution as the BBC stands accused of paying women presenters and others less than their male counterparts.

Thus, if more women are to rise to the ranks of leadership across all areas of economies, societies,and politics, there is a wide range of structural factors to be addressed. This is as relevant to women rising to political leadership as it is to women rising to be top leaders in major public, private, and non-governmental organisations.

On overcoming the barriers which are impeding women rising to positions of political leadership:

Addressing the range of barriers, which prevent women fulfilling their potential in the economy and in society will help lay the basis for more women to rise in political systems too.

Globally these systems have long been male-dominated, with the stereotypical image of Members of Parliament, Cabinet Ministers, and Presidents and Prime Ministers being largely that of a male with a supportive wife. This takes some changing, even in democracies of long duration.

Six years ago, UNDP released an excellent Guidebook to Promote Women’s Political Participation. It was based on case studies of what had worked around the world to boost the numbers of women elected. It took a “whole of electoral cycle approach”,looking at what could be done to boost the numbers of women selected and elected, and to support those elected – especially when the entry of women into such positions had been relatively rare.

There is little doubt that the nature of the electoral system itself has an impact on the numbers of women elected. The First Past the Post,single member constituency system of, for example, the United States, the United Kingdom, and – until 1996 – New Zealand seems to be the least conducive to electing women. This may relate to the traditional occupants of constituencies being male and their spouses playing a support role.

New Zealand changed its voting system in 1996 to a Mixed Member Proportional Representation System modeled on that of Germany. Now only half the parliamentarians are elected from constituencies; the other half come from party lists. In general, the parties have made efforts to ensure that their lists are more representative of women – after all, they do want women to vote for them…. As I noted earlier, when MMP was introduced, the proportion of women elected jumped from the twenty per cent of 1993 to thirty per cent in 1996.That was a fifty per cent increase in just one parliamentary term.

The UNDP Guidebook of 2012 highlighted the critical role of political parties in lifting the numbers of women elected. Without their support, the numbers simply will not rise, as most people are elected to most parliaments with the backing of a political party. So, the parties need to be convinced that boosting the numbers of elected women is the right thing to do. That becomes easier with party list systems, where women can be placed in electable positions, and where the absence of sufficient numbers of women may attract negative comment and have adverse electoral consequences. Some parties rank their lists by alternating the names of women and men on each list to boost the chances of more equitable representation.

In some political systems, legislation for quotas has been enacted. There are many examples of this approach in Sub-Saharan Africa – and it does work. Rwanda is the standout example, with 64 per cent of those elected to its House of Representatives in 2013 being women.

Women standing for election need ongoing support from their parties. In general, old girls’ networks do not have the same financial resources as old boys’ networks, so funding for women candidates is an issue. As well, in some countries, women are exposed to greater danger when campaigning, and need support for their physical security.

Post-election, cross-party groupings of women parliamentarians can ensure that women support each other. These become especially important where elected women MPs are either few in number, and/or where there are many new women MPs who are looking for support to do their job to the best of their ability. UNDP has supported a number of women’s parliamentary caucuses around the world.

I have just been in Bahrain where only three of the forty members of the elected legislature are women. The country has elections at the end of the month, and many well qualified women are standing.

In August, I was in Solomon Islands where only one woman was elected to the fifty-seat legislature at the last election, and one since in a by-election. As with Bahrain, many well qualified women are coming forward for next year’s elections. Money politics there, however, does create significant barriers for women candidates.

In Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, no women were elected in the most recent elections. Years ago, UNDP worked with women in PNG on a proposal for reserved seats for women, but it did not get traction with the legislature. The time has surely come in countries where progress on political representation is so slow to look at how other countries have accelerated the entry of women to parliaments through special measures like quotas. In this country, Labour’s “women-only shortlists” for the 1997 election had a significant impact on the numbers of women elected.

To conclude

Despite much progress in many places, we are a long way from achieving gender equality globally. Women in leadership positions are still a rare commodity.

Yet there are proven ways of breaking through the glass ceilings. Addressing the basic structural issues is a precondition – women can’t even get near the glass ceilings if they are denied equality and protection under the law and are unable to determine their own destiny.

Around the world I have met women across the widest range of societies and political systems who want to drive change. I am encouraged to see the increase from a small base in the number of Cabinets where women number fifty per cent or more of all the ministers – Ethiopia, Rwanda, Colombia and Spain are among the latest examples.

And Ethiopia just gained its first woman President – only the third in Africa. This too is good news.

And it matters – the signals from such appointments to all girls and women are that someone may be looking out for them and their interests and needs, and that no positions are barred to women. We need many more such signals.

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