Wāhine mā, Kahurangi mā, tena tatau katoa.
Nau mai i tenei rā, mo nga Wāhine katoa, huri noa te Ao.
I’m pleased to welcome you all to Government House this morning as we join the many millions of people all around the world who will be celebrating the political, social, cultural and economic achievements of women today.
In previous years, International Women’s Day has been a day of frantic activity for me, flying between Auckland and Wellington and fitting in as many functions as I could.
It’s been fast paced and exhilarating, and through it all I’ve heard a lot of inspiring stories about the role of women in our society – where we are, where we’re going and what we want to achieve.
This year, I’ve decided to take on the role of host and facilitator. To me, Government House is the perfect place to bring together a group of women of disparate ages and life experiences to talk about what the day means to them and how this year’s theme of ‘balance for better’ is represented in their lives.
Of course any conversation around achieving gender balance needs to be balanced itself.
Thank you to the men in the room for showing their support today. Men have an equal role to play in achieving gender equality and of course, they stand to benefit from the stronger, more prosperous communities that result from such progress. Your assistance and encouragement will help us get there.
Finding balance is more achievable for New Zealanders than it is in many other nations. We are fortunate that we live in one of 84 countries in the world where there are no legal restrictions on the type of work women can undertake.
Other women are not so lucky. There are some countries, 104 to be precise, where there are laws that explicitly prevent women from working in certain occupations.
For example in Guinea, women are not allowed to work with certain types of hammers;
Russian women are not allowed to drive trains;
while in Moldova, women are not allowed to drive buses with more than 14 seats.
It’s easy to laugh, but such legislation has a serious impact on women’s employment opportunities and earning capabilities worldwide.
The same World Bank study that compiled the information on restrictions on women’s employment, also revealed that there are only 6 countries in the world where women and men have 100% equal work rights enshrined in law.
New Zealand isn’t in fact part of that top 6. In fact, there are 34 other countries where women and men enjoy greater equality under the law than here. It has to be said that at this level, the gaps are relatively small but there is still work to do around mandating equal pay, and paid maternity and paternity leave if we want to be up there with the likes of Belgium, Denmark and France.
While legal hindrances largely no longer exist in New Zealand, we do still live with constraints caused by unconscious bias.
Our own thoughts, beliefs and notions about gender have been inculcated in us over a lifetime and can be hard to overcome.
I would imagine that every single one of us here today believes strongly in the notion that girls can do anything.
Yet how many of us, when we meet a little girl, talk to her about how pretty her dress is or which Disney Princess is her favourite.
It can be an interesting and sometimes confronting experiment to audit our conversational go-tos and think about the ‘why’ of what we say. By addressing our own biases, we set an example and help people change the way they think about gender and the role it plays in our interactions with others.
Imagine the effect of addressing these biases on a global scale. What sort of a difference would we see in the world?
Well economically, the potential impacts of increasing women’s participation in the workforce are huge.
Christine Lagarde, Head of the International Monetary Fund, said recently that some countries could boost the size of their economies by 35% by abandoning discriminatory laws and encouraging women into work.
It’s not just about work either. Issues of female empowerment, or the lack of it, do not exist in a vacuum. They’re tied to many other things.
Former UN Secretary-General, Ban-Ki Moon stressed this when talking about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
“We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women’s empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all.”
We need to be vigilant about what is happening globally and lend our voices to support those who live where their own voices are stifled.
Women in developing countries are often the food producers for their families. They are the most likely to be affected by the temperature changes and sea level rises of climate change. Working to empower them will better enable them to navigate the very different world of the late 21st century.
Ultimately, ‘Balance for better’ is not about tipping the scales in any one direction. It’s about ensuring that there is equality for all. And that’s the wonderful thing about equality. It’s not a resource, it doesn’t have limits. It’s not something to be parceled up, doled out, monetised or strip mined.
It’s a basic human right. And when we work to ensure that everyone, regardless of gender, has equality of access to opportunity and resources, then we all benefit from the strong and prosperous communities that are created.
I hope you enjoy the programme of speakers we’ve put together for you today and leave here inspired to make real change in the world.
Kia ora huihui tātou katoa.