Hey girls, are we there yet? The long wait for equality for women

by Virginia Larson / 10 September, 2018

Are we there yet? Sadly, the answer seems to be no. Photo / Getty Images

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As the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage in New Zealand looms large, the question has to be asked: Are we there yet? One woman who spent time at the top has a disappointing answer.

In late August, Helen Clark spoke at an Epsom Girls Grammar School fundraiser. The event was called A Conversation with Helen Clark, with broadcaster-journalist Alison Mau asking the questions. I heard about it because I’m on the EGGS old girls’ email list, and I thought our first elected female prime minister might have something interesting to say ahead of the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

As it happened, Mau opened the conversation with a reference to Auckland Museum’s suffrage exhibition, Are We There Yet?


“So, how far have we come, Helen?” she asked. “Are we there yet?”

“We are not.” Clark owns the declarative statement and she had a receptive audience at the school’s packed 250-seat auditorium. She also had a bunch of statistics at her fingertips – the least dispiriting being the current 46 women members of Parliament (38.7%), and a gender pay gap that narrowed slightly last year to 9.4%. But female representation in other fields of governance and business, she said, was a long way from “there yet”.

Clark has read the research. It all concludes that gender diversity in leadership teams and boardrooms is linked to commercial success and better decision-making. “You hear male directors say, ‘We can’t find the women.’ Well, look for them,” she said. “They’re there.”

She was also unequivocal on the subject of domestic violence and sex abuse, calling New Zealand’s rates shameful and declaring her support for the #MeToo movement. That came with no prompting from Mau, who in February launched #MeTooNZ, an investigation into sexual harassment in New Zealand workplaces. Since then, she’s been inundated with calls from people wanting to share their stories.

The conversation veered off to Clark’s eight years heading the United Nations Development Programme, the US presidential campaign, and her enthusiastic embrace of social media. “You’re the queen of Twitter now,” said Mau. “And Snapchat,” Clark quipped.

Back in the lobby, sales of Clark’s new book Women, Equality, Power (Allen & Unwin) picked up, briskly, where they’d left off at the wine and canapés stage of the evening. I wandered into a side-room, where panels displayed some of EGGS’ notable old girls. Clark rightly held centre stage, between fellow politicians Jeanette Fitzsimons and Chlöe Swarbrick, and more curiously, broadcaster Angela D’Audney: “Angela… took an interest in drama,” read the caption. I bet.

I’m an ambivalent alumna. I couldn’t wait to leave the school – to ditch the stultifying rules and dull curriculum. I’m slightly suspicious of people who say high school was the best years of their life. Where were they? At East High, duetting with Zac Efron? Then again, I left EGGS in the 70s and the past really is another country.

The fundraiser also got me thinking about my old class, before we split into arts or science streams in our final exam years. That one group of 30-plus girls produced an international recording artist, award-winning composer, senior research fellow, professor of medicine, veterinary surgeon, engineer, two leading architects, film-set art director, publishing executive and editor – and that’s just among those whose careers I know about or could track online. I don’t recall anything resembling career advice at school, but what all our teachers had was the highest expectations of us; it was simply assumed we would continue our education, and forge interesting and challenging careers. Did we then encounter sexism, harassment and glass ceilings in the workplace? Absolutely. Although not at Clark’s high-stakes level.

“Strength is always admired in men, not necessarily in women,” she told this new generation of EGGS students and their parents. “No one rolled out the red carpet for me and said, ‘Welcome, Helen’. I had to knock the door down. But all leaders need resilience – and sometimes thick skin and deaf ears.”

That she couldn’t knock down the mighty door to the office of secretary-general of the UN is the world’s loss, frankly. They didn’t want a woman; certainly not a woman who gets things done. Still, Helen Clark – EGGS class of 67 – is not done yet. I have high expectations. 

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