The Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy, is concerned ‘depressing statistics’ in gender pay and women’s representation in business directorships could indicate a backsliding on equity gains made in the past few decades.

She gave the examples in a speech acknowledging 125 years since women’s suffrage and urging action by all New Zealanders, specifying a responsibility for men, in ensuring progress was not reversed.

Patsy, a former lawyer and business director who is two years into a five-year term, said: “We are fast approaching the 125th anniversary of the day that one of my predecessors, Lord Glasgow, reluctantly signed a new Electoral Act that enabled women to vote in Parliamentary elections.

“This anniversary is a good time to take stock of our progress. The report card is mixed.

“In my lifetime, there has certainly been great progress….But women of my generation are dismayed that progress has not been as great or as fast as we expected. It seems that when it comes to gender equity, we can’t take gains for granted, and if we are not careful, they can be lost,” she told an audience at Auckland’s Northern Club.

“In many cases we have seen a type of backsliding, a reversion to the previously accepted status quo. It can be described as moral licensing. We’ve done it once so we don’t need to prove we can do it again.”

“We have seen this phenomenon with the proportion of women on company leadership teams declining from what was already a modest representation. This year’s Grant Thornton annual Women in Business survey shows that women now make up 18 percent of senior leadership teams, down from 31 percent in 2004. New Zealand now ranks 33 out of 35 countries in the survey. Down from a top-10 ranking a decade ago.

“Similarly, the gender pay gap remains stubbornly hard to eliminate, and it appears that the remaining differences in pay can only be ascribed to factors like conscious and unconscious bias.

“Despite these depressing statistics, there is a new momentum in the air.  The women’s marches were a world-wide phenomenon, and here in New Zealand, more workplaces are committing to eliminating the gender pay gap, harassment and bullying. I am encouraged to think that we have reached a tipping point.”

Dame Patsy told the club members, including the Northern Club’s first woman president Victoria Carter, she believed making further progress would require constant encouragement.

“The momentum for change still needs to be actively driven by us all. That means continuing to talk about it and to call out discriminatory behaviour. It is up to every New Zealander to make sure that we stay on course.”

“Men joined women in advocating for change in women’s status 125 years ago. We need our men again to be champions for women if we are to achieve and retain lasting social change and put New Zealand back on the map as a world leader in the emancipation of women.”

Her speech emphasised four areas of personal focus as Governor-General: creativity, innovation, diversity and leadership as “key to a sustainable, inclusive and prosperous future for all New Zealanders”.

“My focus on diversity in this Suffrage 125 year means putting a particular spotlight on the role and status of 50 percent of the population – females.”

She concluded: “Diversity is about much more than gender, but if we can’t achieve gender equity, what hope do we have in overcoming the ethnic, cultural, religious and other forms of discrimination that divide us.”

Dame Patsy is New Zealand’s third woman Governor General after Dame Cath Tizard and Dame Silvia Cartwright. Governors-general are limited in what they can address publicly, with much of their roles prescribed by letters patent, law and protocol.

Before carefully addressing her areas of interest in diversity, creativity and innovation, she said: “It is in the area of community engagement that each Governor General is able to exercise some individual preference or discretion.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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