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Women in Leadership Forum, Kuala Lumpur

Issue date: 
Friday, 8 December 2017
The Rt Hon Dame Patsy Reddy, GNZM, CVO, QSO

Selamat petang dan selamat sejahtera

Distinguished guests, Good morning. Thank you for inviting me to address today’s forum.

It’s an honour to have this opportunity to speak about women and leadership in New Zealand – and to learn about women’s participation in leadership roles in Malaysia.

I have been asked to comment on my personal experience of leadership today.

As it happens, I have not consciously sought leadership roles in my career, but what I have done is follow up interesting or challenging opportunities when they arise.

In saying that, I would like such opportunities to be made more widely available to women, and I am keen to do what I can to promote change.

I grew up in provincial New Zealand – my parents were both school teachers.  That provided some important advantages

My mother had a full-time job in an era when very few women worked outside the home.

My parents both valued the importance of education above all else.

My father was an early feminist.He had no sons so he treated me as he would have treated a son.

I went to a girls college and then to Victoria University in Wellington. At university, although I was amongst a minority of women studying law, I did not really experience discrimination.

However, that was not the case when I graduated and tried to secure a job. It was still very difficult for women to be employed by a law firm, and when I finally did succeed in getting a job, I found that clients did not always have confidence in the opinion of a female lawyer.

Fortunately my colleagues were prepared to accept me as an equal and I’m pleased to say that I became the first female partner in that firm.

Later in my career, after some years of experience in the private sector with non-executive directorships and other governance roles, I was asked to chair a Board.

I must confess that my first response was to think that I was not ready to take on such responsibility, but then I realised that this was a typical female lack of self-confidence and that I should give it a try.

That attitude spurred me to take on some fascinating and diverse roles in the public sector, including undertaking formal reviews of Government Departments; acting as a Chief Crown Negotiator with Māori tribes seeking restitution for breaches of our nation’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi; and chairing a cross-sector committee setting principles for determining pay equity between men and women.

I was uncertain about my abilities when I was approached to take up each of these roles but after my initial anxiety I found them stimulating and rewarding.

It’s fair to say that I was astonished when I was invited by our former Prime Minister, Sir John Key, to become New Zealand’s Governor-General.

Again, my initial response was ‘Why me? I don’t have the skills to do this.’

At the Prime Minister’s urging, I reflected that this would be a wonderful opportunity to serve my country, to do what I could to make a positive difference, and to help others achieve their goals.

Although a Governor-General is not empowered to intervene in policy, there are opportunities to help the advance of public good – and in my case, that definitely includes gender equity.

Clearly, if we do not want female leaders to be seen as a remarkable exception, more progress in gender equity is required.

One of the advantages of being a young country is the opportunity to do things differently, to experiment, and respond nimbly to changing circumstances. New Zealand has had the luxury of being something of an incubator of new social policies for women, most notably with women achieving the right to vote in Parliamentary elections, 124 years ago.

We are proud that New Zealand women were the first to reach that significant milestone in the history of human rights.

However, it is worth noting that it was another 26 years before women were permitted to stand as candidates in Parliamentary elections, and 40 years before a woman was elected to Parliament.

If we are to believe a recent article in Time magazine, our current female representation of over 38 percent of MPs is well on the way to creating positive change for women in Parliament. According to the theory of critical mass, the magic figure of 30 percent is when change really starts to accelerate.

With regard to education, just 37 years after New Zealand was founded as a nation, New Zealander Kate Edger became the first woman in the British Empire to earn a Bachelor of Arts, in July 1877.

Education has continued to be an effective route for economic independence for New Zealand women and I have learnt during my visit here that this is also happening in Malaysia.

In New Zealand, female students outnumber male students at university, but when they leave university, they still face discrimination through conscious and unconscious bias.

And not enough of them get into leadership roles. For example, although more women than men graduate with law degrees each year, they are still underrepresented in leadership roles in the law.  in 2015, they comprised only 27 percent of the partners or directors of law firms, and only 31 percent of our judges.

I do not have the latest figures for women in senior academic positions in New Zealand universities, but in 2012, they held only 24% of those roles. I certainly hope they have made some progress towards that magic figure of 30% in the years since.

The growth in female representation on company boards has also been disappointing, but a new requirement for listed companies to have and publish their diversity policy might help nudge the figure beyond the current 17 %.

I am pleased to say that our public service is leading the way on gender equity, with 41% of public service Chief Executive roles being held by women.

Now we just need the private sector to follow suit.

For the second time in our history, our Prime Minister, Chief Justice and Governor-General are all women.

We can be proud that this is possible in our country, but we will be even prouder when such an achievement is no longer deserving of comment.

We will be prouder when we have achieved pay equity, when training to confront and minimise unconscious bias becomes unnecessary, and when women are more routinely elected onto boards and into leadership roles.

Next year, in our 125th anniversary year of women’s suffrage, I intend to do what I can to promote the importance of equity for women in New Zealand.

This is not just a human rights issue. It is also about untapping economic potential. There are significant productivity gains if half the potential talent of a country is unleashed.

Similarly, there is clear evidence that having more women in leadership roles increases the performance of companies – in terms of financial performance, relationships, collaboration and communication.

Workplaces need to change and become more flexible to attract women into leadership roles. And when women do become leaders, they have a responsibility to do what they can to enable other women to have the same opportunities.

I am heartened by the fact that young women in my country are more aware of the need to maintain a work/life balance, and that’s healthy.

As more women become leaders, our ideas of what leadership looks like will continue to evolve, and that will be good for men and women.

Legislation is just the start. Leadership and commitment to change, across our communities, is also needed.

I am optimistic that the current mood for change in New Zealand will translate into a renewed commitment to gender equity and greater opportunities for women to take up leadership roles across all sectors.

In my lifetime, I have witnessed extraordinary social change, and although New Zealand may be doing well when it comes to women in leadership, I am looking forward to seeing an acceleration in those opportunities in the years ahead. 

Once again, thank you for inviting me today, and I look forward to having further opportunity to comment during the panel discussion.

Last updated: 
Tuesday, 12 December 2017

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