How sexist is New Zealand politics?

8:43 am on 30 October 2015

Power Play - New Zealand made history by becoming the first country to give women the vote - but is it still breaking new ground in 2015?

Most of the framed photos on the walls of Parliament show white, middle-aged men.

The photos on the walls of Parliament show - at a glance - the kinds of people who have held power within it. Photo: RNZ / Amelia Langford

Walking through Parliament's halls could be daunting for any new woman MP, with many of the walls still lined with photos of middle-aged, Caucasian, men in suits.

Women MPs make up only about a third of Parliament and it seems many women MPs still face casual sexism or even subconscious putdowns.

It was only recently that Labour's Jacinda Ardern was dismissed as a "pretty little thing" by a former rugby league football coach.

So do sexist attitudes remain but lie just below the surface?

Judith Collins.

National backbench MP and former minister Judith Collins - also known as "Crusher Collins". Photo: RNZ / Luke Appleby

National backbench MP and former minister Judith Collins certainly thinks so. Whether on the backbench or not, she is hard to ignore, and her outspokent views still frequently make media headlines.

You don't acquire the nickname "Crusher Collins" if you're not prepared to put yourself out there.

Ms Collins says women in politics are absolutely judged on their appearance and age - far more than their male colleagues.

She points to the recent media speculation over who would be chosen for Labour's deputy leader - the more experienced Annette King versus her younger colleague, Ms Ardern.

Labour MP Dr David Clark (left) and Labour MP Jacinda Ardern (right) in question time.

Labour MP Dr David Clark and Labour MP Jacinda Ardern in question time. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Ms King, who was first elected in 1984, was the obvious choice as "Labour's best performer" but people always want a "shiny new face", Ms Collins says.

In the politics game, she says, it is seen as a bad thing for a female politician to be middle-aged - despite all the experience she has acquired during her career.

But there are plenty of middle-aged men in politics who are seen as just hitting their stride when they get into their 40s and even 50s.

Ms Collins contends women have more of a use-by date in politics. In keeping Ms King as his deputy, however, Labour leader Andrew Little has given a nod to the fact her age and experience are of value to the party - and the leadership.

Labour Deputy Leader, Annette King.

Annette King Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Ms King says when she first arrived in Parliament, during the Muldoon era, women had to be "pretty stroppy".

She thinks things have changed considerably since then but there is still some innate bias around the place.

Ms King points to former Prime Minister Helen Clark as someone who broke the glass ceiling and led the way. But even she faced political attacks about her sexuality, her looks and her lack of children which male leaders have not been subjected to.

Maori Party MP Marama Fox

Marama Fox Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox says women still fight to have their voice heard in Parliament and it would be great to get more women into politics.

But she says former party leader and minister Dame Tariana Turia, in particular, made huge strides for Māori women in politics.

National MP Maggie Barry, who is a current minister, was the first woman to be selected as a National candidate for the North Shore. At the time, she was told the North Shore "wasn't ready for a woman" and that was in 2011.

Only six of the National government's 20-strong Cabinet are women.

If you look at the former speakers of the house, there has only been one woman in their ranks - Margaret Wilson.

It's not a problem confined to politics, of course. NZX figures show only 14 percent of company directors in New Zealand are women, while Human Rights Commission data shows female chief executives number less than a quarter.

But, former Labour MP Fran Wilde - who was only in Parliament for a short time but made an impact, most notably with her Homosexual Law Reform Bill - says Parliament needs work.

Ms Wilde says "very sexist remarks" were quite frequent and overt when she was in politics.

Parliament seems a "different world" now, and much more diverse, but it is not quite there and political parties need to put up more female candidates, she says.

So there has been progress but maybe not enough. What about a quota system?

The Green Party has suggested a gender quota, and has promised to put together a Cabinet of which half the members are women.

But many argue that a quota would be misguided, as appointments need to be made on merit.

Most of the framed photos on the walls of Parliament show white, middle-aged men.

Is a quota system needed in Parliament? Opinions are mixed. Photo: RNZ / Amelia Langford

Prime Minister John Key has dismissed the idea, saying it would be a token gesture and would imply a woman only got the job because she was female.

But Green MP Julie-Anne Genter rubbishes that argument, saying quotas get results by encouraging women to step up and go for leadership roles when they otherwise would not.

Ms Wilde says it's still an issue, because we're still talking about it. She gives the example of an all-women board of directors, saying it's still a talking point in 2015.

But a board full of men? Well, that's just the status quo.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs