Making policy that really works for women

A country where gender is a barrier to wellbeing is good for no one, so Jess Berentson-Shaw asks if our policy makers and politicians have actively thought about how to make New Zealand a great place to be a woman

Sometimes I overhear conversations between my daughters (aged 7 and 11 years) about what they want to do when they are grown-up. Their sweetest and funniest ideas often involve constructing careers in which they never have to live separately from each other, because they love each other so much (when they are not hating each other!).

Sometimes the seven year old asks me “oh can girls do that job, Mum?” It's a genuine query. And it puzzles me that in 2020 a seven year old girl is still a bit unclear on whether the world is made for her too. It should be made for her, for kids of all genders. None of them should worry that their gender plays any role in them reaching their dreams in life. That is the New Zealand we all want our kids to grow up in.

A few years back now I was invited to a roundtable discussion with a group of economists. We were there to talk about working for families, tax, and social policy more generally.

I was one of two women in the room, and probably the youngest by a couple of decades. It was not my comfort zone.

At one point I observed that the impacts  of our social and economic policy system on women’ lives was barely considered, and our public service had largely ignored and excluded women's lives and experiences.

I probably made a swipe at the Treasury at that point too and the lack of diversity of people employed, but more importantly the missing diversity of thought. I probably could have framed it better. But in moments of heightened anxiety - laying a challenge about gender inequity down in a room full of men, many of whom had shaped social and economic policy in this country for some decades - things tend to come out a little bluntly.

But what happened next was what can best be described as a whole lot of ‘punching down’. I was ritually humiliated by some of those men who of course denied what I said had merit. They were wrong.  

Historically, many policy makers in this county have ignored the way that their policy shapes and harms the lives of women, especially women who parent alone or care for others, women who are Māori, women who have a disability, women who are Pacific, women who are under-resourced, women who are transgender.

Policy makers do this in their choices in a myriad of small and big ways. Women, for example, make up over 80 percent of people raising children alone, they also earn less than men, have less wealth, are more likely to work in part-time and precarious roles, and be doing more unpaid work caring for whānau and family.

The way women’s lives look different from men's, and different women's lives look different from each other, means that when changes are made to significant policies like Working For Families or sole parent support, employment policies, childcare subsidies, tax policies, different women will experience those changes differently from men, and from each other.

For example, when and where investments for the Covid-19 recovery are made will impact people’s lives differently. Women tend to work in our social infrastructure - caring, teaching, healthcare. Men tend to work in physical infrastructure - building things. A large portion of the COVID-19 investment is in physical infrastructure projects.

And those different effects can constrain women's lives, the goals they have for themselves and their families and children, and also the men in their lives because women don't live in a vacuum. A country where gender is a barrier to wellbeing is good for no one. If Covid-19 made anything clearer it is that what affects one of us affects us all.

Ensuring women can live their lives fully starts, as always, with what we value, and with people with the power bringing those values into their policy-making decisions, as opposed to just talking about what they value. The big question is, are people in politics and policy making actively valuing and building a country where it is a great place to be a woman?

One way to find that out is to look and see if people in our political parties have any explicit vision for women in Aotearoa New Zealand, or different groups of women?

Another way would be to ask if they have made a commitment to using tools like gender responsive budgeting - tools that help people in places like the Treasury see who is benefiting from certain policies and how the policy would address or worsen existing harm.

This year in the run up to the general election, the Gender Justice Collective is asking just that of people in politics. The collective are asking what different women need to live their lives fully in this country (via this survey - do fill it out)  and will then use the findings to build the WeChoose2020 tool. A tool which will score political parties on their vision and plan to deliver for these needs.

It will be interesting to see how our people in politics are approaching these issues. It will certainly tell us whether New Zealand, a country with one of the western world's most inspiring women leaders, is acting to support the aspirations of all women.

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