Opinion: The rise of feminism and gender politics

Debates about gender and women’s position in society continue to gain mainstream prominence. On International Working Women’s Day, Dr Bryce Edwards of Victoria University discusses feminism’s continued rise.

Issues of gender, feminism and sexual politics have never been more prominent in New Zealand public discourse. Debates on equal pay, on having a woman prime minister, and on sexual harassment, have all been part of a heightened focus on gender politics that has been building for about five years.

This is the case around the world, especially in the west. At the end of last year, “feminism” was even named as the “word of the year” by online dictionary Merriam-Webster. It was reported that online searches for the word had increased 70 percent over the year.

In New Zealand, my own research indicates the use of the words “feminism” and “feminist” in the New Zealand media are set to reach yet another peak this year.

In the chart below, the number of media articles that include feminist and feminism are displayed over the last 16 years. This is derived from an online database of numerous print publications such as The New Zealand Herald, the various Stuff-owned newspapers such as The Dominion Post and The Press, as well as a few magazines. An earlier version of some of this data was discussed in a Newsroom column last year – see: Is a more radical mood developing in NZ?

This chart suggests that the annual use of “feminist” and “feminism” in articles was relatively stable in the ten years from 2002 through to 2012. But in the last five years their use has tripled. (Note, however, that the word count for 2018 involves only media articles from 1 January until 6 March – and these figures have been extrapolated to forecast what the final total for the year might look like.)

Of course, not all discussions about gender and sexual politics use these words, so another word-count exercise using the word “gender” is displayed below. This also shows that since 2011, the annual number of media articles utilising this word has increased by about 360 percent. The escalation in 2018 has been particularly steep.

Clearly, the use of gender and feminist terminology will reach a record high in the New Zealand media this year. This will come as no surprise to anyone following the debates over female representation in politics, the gender pay gap, and more recently sexual harassment in public life, characterised by the #MeToo and #MeTooNZ campaigns.

Last year’s election saw a record 46 female MPs going into Parliament. See the chart below, taken from the Parliamentary library’s report on the general election, which shows the 2017 election “surpassing the previous record of 41 elected to the 49th Parliament in 2008. Overall, women now comprise over 38 percent of the new Parliament”. And of course, with the Bill English and Steven Joyce about to be replaced with two National women MPs, the number will soon rise to 48.

The election also resulted in New Zealand’s third female prime minister – Jacinda Ardern. Ardern’s pregnancy announcement in January led to even more debate about gender issues. And a focus on gender has accompanied many of the PM’s media appearances this year – notably the Vogue magazine photoshoot and the Australian 60 Minutes interview last week.

Ardern’s gender has also been the focus of a lot of international media and political attention, and soon after becoming PM, she was declared by Forbes magazine to be the 13th most powerful women in the world.

Despite Ardern’s Labour Party adding to the increased proportion of women MPs, the new government has not become more gender-balanced than before. Ardern’s first Cabinet only included seven women, including herself, which was about the same as over the last two decades. Arguably, none of the top ministerial roles have been entrusted to women, and the Women’s Affairs portfolio was also pushed out of Cabinet and given to Green Minister Julie Anne Genter.

Nonetheless, this government is firmly focused on gender issues and, on forming her government, Ardern proclaimed that women would be one of the three priorities for the coalition (alongside inequality and climate change).

Other parts of the political system are also led by women now. The Governor-General is Patsy Reddy, and the Chief Justice is Sian Elias. Therefore, along with Ardern as PM, it is said that the top three political positions are held by women, which was also the case for a while during the last Labour government.

The media’s coverage of politics is also increasingly led by women. It’s especially notable that women are the political editors of nearly all the main outlets represented in the parliamentary press gallery: Audrey Young (NZ Herald), Tracy Watkins (Stuff), Jane Patterson (RNZ), Tova O’Brien (Newshub), and Jessica Mutch (TVNZ).  

In the corporate world, there has been much less progress in women rising to the top. According to research out today, women make up 18 percent of senior management teams at companies surveyed by Grant Thornton – which is down 2 percent from last year.

In terms of company boards, the trend is in the right direction, with the New Zealand stock exchange reporting in January that the percentage of women directors of listed company boards has increased from 12 percent in 2013 to 19 percent, which has been described as “glacial” progress.

But there is certainly now a lot of campaigning around corporate gender equality. Jenny Shipley has been particularly active over the last year as the chair of Global Women NZ, which promotes businesswomen. Likewise, “feminist capitalist” Theresa Gattung is leading the SheEO movement to promote more women CEOs.

Many state institutions are also on a mission to improve gender equality amongst their ranks. The most notable in recent months have been campaigns launched by the GCSB and Police to fix gender imbalances. And even the Chiefs Rugby team and business is now led by a woman.

Outside all of these institutions of power, there have also been plenty of interesting movements on the ground. Campaigns have ranged from websites being established to share stories of harassment, to a café that has been charging 12 percent more to male customers in response to pay inequality – similarly, an Auckland electrician has been deducting 12 percent of his bills for women.

But it’s the pay equality fight that is particularly important for many women workers. It’s for this reason that equal-pay campaigner Kristine Bartlett has been declared New Zealander of the Year, after she helped win a pay rise for 55,000 low-paid, mainly female care and support workers.

Bartlett and her campaign are a good reminder that while we are celebrating feminism and gender progress, today is traditionally called International Working Women’s Day, even though most people have dropped the focus on the “Working” element.

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