How long before equality around the local government table?

How many women is enough on our council?

Whanganui is already above the national trend – we currently have five out of 13 women leading our district.  That’s 38%, well above the national average of 30%.

But are we going to inch closer to actually reflecting our community – 50% women – or are we going to drop away?

We have two women stepping down from the council, with, I assume, three staying on and fighting for re-election.  There is only one woman so far having publicly declared she will be contesting a position on Whanganui District Council.  And at a meeting for those interested in standing, nine potential candidates attended – all men.

Is it possible that Whanganui will go backward this year?  Or are there more women biding their time, waiting to announce they’re going to stand?  I hope so.

I was told by a friend that women are elected in the proportion in which they stand, so I checked out the Stats NZ to double-check – it’s true.  If women make up 30% of the candidates, they end up as about 30% of the elected members.

Why does it matter to have gender balance?  There are so many clever ways to answer that (almost hypothetical) question, but sticking with the Stats website: “For the government to represent the population, it’s important that people from different groups – including both men and women – participate.  Representative governments engage diverse communities, draw on the skills of the broadest group of people, and provide checks on the use of political power.”

But our progress is painfully slow.  At a national level, we have moved up from 23% women in local government in 1992, to 30% women in the last elections in 2013 – that averages out as a move up of 1% per three year election cycle.  At that rate, it will take another 60 years to achieve equal representation at councils in New Zealand – that should be an outrage. 

Has something changed?  Has our pace of progress towards equality stagnated?  Is it even going backwards?

This week I watched on Netflix an amazing documentary about the women’s liberation movement between 1966 and 1971 in the US.  Entitled She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, it’s must watch viewing.

These women would be deeply disappointed – and angry – with the sluggish progress since the radical changes they demanded and won.  Unfortunately, some of their demands continue today, like equal pay for equal work – unresolved.

Finance Minister Bill English this week vetoed 26 weeks of paid parental leave (supported by all the parties in Parliament except ACT and National).  It feels ironic that I learnt through the doco that President Nixon vetoed a childcare bill that had been passed by Congress in 1971 too.

So what are the barriers to more women standing for election?  I suspect childcare is one of them, but it will be different for different women.

This week at our local National Council of Women branch meeting, we talked about how we could encourage more women to stand, and how we could support them.  We just need to know who’s out there and what are their needs.

If you care about Whanganui and see the value in having balanced leadership in our district, talk to women you know who could be contenders.  Get in touch with the National Council of Women by emailing me: nicola@nicolapatrick.com.