New Zealand's 'new-girl network' at the top

A new governor-general solidifies the cluster of high-ranking women in government.

When Jenene Crossan-Nicholls, the 20-something editor of NZ Girl, a locally based online magazine, considers the kinds of celebrities her audience might want to read about these days, she hasn't much to say about snake-hipped fashion models or bubblegum singers. It's the nation's leading bureaucrats and pols she talks about.

"Right now," she says, "I think you'd find that the civil service and politics hold quite a bit of interest for your typical girl here."

And quite likely their mothers, too. The appointment two weeks ago of Silvia Cartwright as the country's next head of state - a largely ceremonial post she will officially assume next March or April - means that all of the top jobs within this small South Pacific nation's constitutional framework are now held by women. Among all the countries represented in New York this week for the United Nations Millennium Summit of world leaders, only New Zealand boasts such a comprehensive female lock on the levers of political power.

As governor-general, Ms. Cartwright will represent the British queen, the nominal leader of this onetime British colony. Prime Minister Helen Clark heads the government's executive branch, while Chief Justice Sian Elias is the person in charge of the judiciary.

Other women currently in top jobs include former prime minister and National Party leader Jenny Shipley, attorney-general Margaret Wilson, and the new mayor of Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, Christine Fletcher.

The "new girl's network," as some have called it, also reaches into commerce - its most notable member being Theresa Gattung, chief executive at Telecom, the country's biggest corporation.

"Where all of those women are is a tribute to their strengths," says Donna Awatere-Huata, one of the 32 female members of Parliament currently serving in the 120-member body. "They're all powerful women who have reached the pinnacle of their profession through their own individual application and talents."

Still, Ms. Awatere-Huata is quick to point out, it's not as if a liberal local culture didn't play a significant part in their upward trend. This, she suggests, and the country's isolation have also made it easier for the Kiwis to accept the kinds of social changes that older countries with more entrenched traditions might find more difficult.

New Zealand was the first nation in the world to give women the vote, in 1893, 15 years after it became the first country in the old British empire to award a bachelor's degree to a female university student. Alison Laurie, a lecturer in women's studies at the Victoria University of Wellington, describes these events as precursors to a pretty "remarkable string of firsts for women."

Among them is the hot-button year of 1986, when the Labor Party government of the time established the Ministry of Women's Affairs, a state-funded agency responsible for promoting legislation and policies aimed at bettering the lives of women and raising their general status.

Although initially derided by many conservatives - one leading National Party MP, Ruth Richardson, declared at the time that she and her colleagues would never accept "that there are a range of issues that can be tagged 'women's issues' and pigeon-holed in a ministry" - the agency today enjoys bipartisan support and is widely credited with having feminized the policymaking process. Its behind-the-scenes influence is said to have played an important role in setting the stage for today's all-female cast on center stage.

Even so, New Zealand remains one of a few nations in the wealthy world - the United States and Australia are others - where new mothers have no legal claim to paid parental leave. For this reason, perhaps, only one of the half-dozen cited female super-achievers - Ms. Shipley - has children.

In common with most other Western nations, too, women in New Zealand still earn only around three-quarters of the income of their male counterparts. Only 12 percent are partners in law firms, and 14 percent judges.

"The present situation at the top in New Zealand is a little artificial," believes Richard Prebble, one of the country's longest-serving parliamentarians and leader of a center-right group known as the ACT NZ Party. He sees at least two of the recent appointments - those of chief justice and governor-general - as being motivated at least in part by the desire of Ms. Clark to promote women at all costs. "If you're looking for overall meaning, I would say that it shows firstly and foremostly that politics matters in this issue."

For Ms. Crossan-Nicholls, the girl's magazine editor, her best days as a young New Zealand woman still lie ahead, she believes, when the very issue of women in public life ceases to be an issue at all.

"I've grown up believing that if a young woman believes in herself, and goes through life doing what she wants to do, then sex isn't going to be an issue," she says. "Of course, sure, it's nice to say hey, we're at the top - but won't it be nice when nobody notices anymore?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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