Women in Infrastructure Network Reception
E nga mana, e nga reo, e nga iwi o te motu e huihui nei, tēnei aku mihi māhana ki a koutou. Kia ora tātou katoa.
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, warm greetings to you all.
I specifically acknowledge Margaret Devlin, Chair of Women in Infrastructure and Patrick Brockie, Chair of Infrastructure NZ - tēnā korua.
It is a great pleasure to welcome you all to Government House this evening.
As you may have noticed, I am not the current Governor-General. Dame Patsy is unable to be here this evening as she is travelling to France to represent New Zealand at the final First World War commemorations at Le Quesnoy. She sends her apologies and wishes you all the best for an enjoyable evening.
Dame Patsy’s absence however does give me this wonderful opportunity to be here tonight. You might say I’m acting as Dame Patsy’s stunt double. All the fun and none of the responsibility! I’ve promised Dame Patsy that I won’t say or do anything that she wouldn’t…which gives me plenty of licence!
The commemoration of Suffrage 125 this year has pushed us to examine our progress since New Zealand women received the vote since 1893.
The ground-breaking events of 125 years ago have cemented, in our minds at least, an image of New Zealand as a leader in women’s rights. We are proud of our reputation as a country where women can participate and prosper.
A case in point - three of our five most recent prime ministers have been women, as have three of the last six Governors General – Dame Cath Tizard, Dame Patsy Reddy and me. It is important however, to emphasise that simply because women have held some positions of influence in NZ, there has not yet been a huge change for women in the professions and in the general workforce. There is symbolic importance in having women leaders, but the real issue is empowering and rewarding all women wherever they sit in the structure of our community.
We have come a long way since we won the right to vote and even my experiences as a young lawyer in the 1970’s illustrates this. One of the stories the team here at GH likes is when I wanted to buy a sewing machine on a “no interest for terms” hire purchase deal. The young salesman who tried to tell me that it was the “law” that my husband must counter-sign the agreement is probably still traumatised by my response. I was after all, a partner in my legal practice and not prepared to defer to anyone over an issue of credit. I like to think he learned from this experience, as did his employer.
Thankfully, 21st century women have far more autonomy and opportunity than previous generations. But have we achieved true gender equality? Not yet.
Just like women working in the infrastructure sector, I have always been a woman very much working in a man’s world.
I got my big break when I was asked to chair a political meeting for a National Party Cabinet Minister during the election campaign in the mid 1970’s. It was a dull affair, there were few questions, and not much for a chair to do. Not long after, however, I was surprised to be rung from Wellington and invited to become a member of the Commission for the Future, a non-partisan group established to prepare scenarios and conduct surveys for the purpose of advising the government on the future direction of the country. Apparently, the Cabinet Minister had never had a woman chair a meeting for him, was astonished that I could do it, and decided that my performance qualified me to become a lay adviser to government. It reminded me very much of Samuel Johnson’s comment:
A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all
Throughout my career I have been placed in positions where no woman has gone before. As most of you know, it can be daunting, lonely but sometimes stimulating. What I have found, however, is that retaining your core qualities, your personality, work ethic, confidence (even when you are weeping inside) and sense of humour all help. In fact, it never took long for me to be accepted as one of the team even if there was initial resistance.
Along the way, I have been both grateful to and irritated by male mentors who have promoted and supported me when times got tough. I mention irritation because invariably when a new position was proposed I declined, considering I was neither equipped to manage a new challenge, nor interested in leaving a job I had finally mastered. Looking back, however, I am grateful to those mentors who insisted. I would never have taken the step of putting myself forward, and would have missed so many unique experiences.
This prompts me to suggest that younger women should also be able to expect promotion and encouragement from more experienced women in their sectors. And we must always ensure that we do not emulate some of the negative behaviours – bullying, elitist attitudes – that we have suffered for so long.
As time has gone on, female representation in the legal sector has increased greatly. Sadly, that has not always translated into more or even equal opportunities for women. For a long time, we have assumed that as the proportions of women in a profession increase, so too will their inclusion in influential positions. I have now realised that the discrimination against women holding positions traditionally held by men is not the only reason that we are disproportionately clustered in inferior positions or paid less. Stimulated by the “me too” movement, the recent events involving New Zealand law firms have demonstrated what happens when power imbalances allow predatory, entitled behaviour to be tolerated or worse, accepted.
While there are still pockets of misogyny and prejudice around New Zealand, we can take heart in the number of men actively working to support the role of women in the workforce. After all, the suffragists of 1893 were not exclusively women. Then as now, men saw that women’s rights were human rights and gave their backing to the cause. Just as I have benefited from influential men persuading me to accept more and more responsibility, today decent and honourable men are increasingly accepting that with leadership comes the responsibility to speak up and step up. Women do not threaten men, we simply want to have the chance to walk alongside them.
Organisations like the Women in Infrastructure Network are vital components in the work of improving diversity in the workplace. There are many issues that need attention if gender-equal workplaces are to become the new normal.
One of the hardest things to overcome is attitudes towards what suitable employment for men and women looks like. Women working in infrastructure are no longer a rarity but there is much to do in encouraging young women to consider these types of careers. One of the best ways is leading by example. Thank you all for being such positive role models for others considering entering this sector.
I wish you well in your efforts to make your workplaces more diverse and more inclusive.
Kia ora, kia kaha, kia manawanui, huihui tātou katoa