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HMC NEWS: Inspiring women – my meeting with Helen Clark

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark came to Hamilton on Tuesday night, to speak at a Zonta International Function to mark International Women’s Day.

In no uncertain terms, Ms Clark is a bit of a legend, not only with the crowd of 400+ people that packed into that conference room at SkyCity Hamilton, but with generations of women.

There were people of all ages in the room, but I was heartened to see local high school students among those waiting to hear Helen speak.

I was there with five friends – all mums with young school age kids. We’d left the children home with the blokes and babysitters for a rare night out, and were eager to hear what Helen had to say.

The conversation – an armchair Q&A-style discussion between long-time friends and political allies, Professor Margaret Wilson and Helen, covered the gamut – gender equality in the modern era, the challenges that women still face in New Zealand and internationally, the #MeToo movement and how women can get into roles of leadership and governance to enact change in the world.

It was inspiring, listening to these two women talk. Although the room was crowded, it felt intimate, like we were in Helen’s lounge having a chat.

Clark was PM from 1999 to 2008, and has since gone on to influence on the international stage as the administrator of the United Nations (UN) Development Fund, the first women to lead that organisation.

She talked about the struggle women in some developing countries face: forced into marriage as young teenagers, with lack of choice and education, and the high risks associated with childbirth, health and poverty.  For a woman living in Niger, for example, it’s hard to be empowered and enact change when you are not allowed to complete your schooling, are married off at 15, have a higher risk of dying in childbirth, your children may not make five-years-old, and you struggle with ongoing issues relating to the birth and lack of appropriate healthcare.

Clark also spoke about the challenges women face in countries where, on the surface, gender equality is more balanced – such as New Zealand, Australia, the US, UK and parts of Europe.

Internationally female representation in the world’s top positions is “disgracefully low” said Clark.  She cited UN Geneva data that women make up 7.2 per cent of all heads of state, 5.2 per cent of heads of government, 23.3 per cent of MPs and 26 per cent of ambassadors.

In New Zealand, do we have gender equality? We have Jacinda Ardern as our third female PM (after Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark) and Patsy Reddy our third female Governor General (after Catherine Tizard and Silvia Cartwright).

However, it was noted that the percentage of women in governance roles, on boards, and as leaders – positions such as CEO – are still well below 50 per cent in New Zealand. Research by Westpac, released in 2017, found that although women make up about half of the workforce they only hold 29 per cent of management roles. To my knowledge, there is currently just one women CEO among the NZX50 companies (Kate McKenzie, CEO of Chorus). We need to do a better job.

Clark encouraged Kiwi women to enact change by getting involved, and by standing up for what they believed in. Although politics wasn’t an easy career, it was worthwhile, said Clark, especially when she was in a position to make positive changes to people’s lives.

My favourite quote was: “don’t wait for someone to roll out a red carpet and open the door for you. You roll out that red carpet and kick that door in!”

She told us – that despite years of education and mentoring of women – there is not gender equality in New Zealand. There is still an imbalance and a lack of representation at the highest levels where decisions are made. To address imbalance, not only for women but for other groups such as Maori – quotas may be needed, Professor Wilson suggested.

Australia’s Labour party is vowing to do just that – with policy aimed at putting more women in senior public positions. Should the New Zealand government and the business sector show leadership, and follow suit? What changes are required, in building women for leadership positions and in recruiting women for senior roles, to see greater representation and gender equality at senior levels?

Men also need to do more – to “lean in”. For some in our group, this resonated. It’s so important to have supportive husbands and partners in our lives, to let us be both mums and professionals – to have the time and headspace to take on leadership opportunities.

I am lucky to have a husband who takes an equal role with domestic chores – he’s a maestro when it comes to washing the dishes and folding the laundry. He supports my career and many times has looked after the kids so I could finish a book project or meet a deadline.

My boss empowers me too – she enables me to work part-time and is understanding about the kids when they are sick or there is a school event I need to be at. She is also a great role model, and pushes me to attend educational and industry workshops to network and develop my skills. Not all bosses are so supportive or flexible, I know that from experience.

As ‘an evening with Helen Clark’ came to an end, fans lined up to meet her. Helen patiently took time to get selfies with everyone – happy to throw an arm around people’s shoulders, make eye contact and talk. She was genuine, honest and kind, and I really liked her.

Later, I posted about the event and shared my selfie with Helen on social media, tagging her (as you do). To my surprise, she responded to thank me (twice!). For an incredibly busy and important women with thousands of followers, to take the time to interact with a Hamilton mum was pretty cool in my books.

It’s always great to meet a hero, especially when they exceed your expectations. I was left feeling inspired to kick down some doors, take on leadership opportunities and support other women in my professional and personal spheres, and in the community. For me, that means mentoring younger women and giving my time to causes that empower women, such as Waikato Women’s Refuge.

I hope that the high school students were inspired too. I know I’ll be telling my five-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son about Helen, and I hope that their generation will see the changes in equality and representation we are striving for.

International Women’s Day is held annually on March 8.

By Kate Monahan-Riddell, HMC Communications