Cross-Examination: The Phantom Menace – Misogyny in NZ Politics

Elizabeth Murray, Contributor

Women are being left out of the political sphere in New Zealand. The level of female representation in Parliament looks at best to be stagnant, at worst to be declining. Neither of the major parties have put active steps in place to rectify the discrepancy between male and female representation in Parliament. Despite women having won suffrage more than a century ago, gender inequality in Parliament is still an issue that needs to be addressed. Increased gender representation in Parliament gives political institutions more democratic legitimacy, increases the prevalence of women’s issues in Parliament, and increases women’s political engagement.

New Zealand prides itself on its commitment to equality and democracy. It was the first country to give women the vote in 1893. Given these two things, you would expect the gender representation in our country’s Parliament to stack up a lot better than it does. New Zealand ranks just 27th on the Inter-Parliamentary Union world ranking of women in Parliament. This result is pitiful for a country that likes to think of itself as gender-equal.[1] After the 2014 election, just 39 out of 121 MPs were women (32.2%). Whilst the Greens and the Maori Party have a 50/50 split of male to female MPs, the other parties are severely lacking in equal gender representation. The 32.2% does not represent a steady increase either. Since the introduction of the mixed-member-proportional electoral system (MMP) in 1996 the proportion of women MPs in New Zealand has remained relatively stagnant at around 30%.[2] New Zealand’s peak was in in 2008 when there were 42 female MPs (33.6% of Parliament). Moreover, we do not just have a lack of female representatives in our Parliament, but women in general are much less politically active or politically engaged than men.[3]

MP Gender Make Up by Party

There is no one reason for the lack of gender parity in the New Zealand Parliament. A combination of electoral systems, party selection processes and decisions, and the media’s portrayal of women only begin to explain the myriad of problems that face female politicians.

A non-proportional electoral system is often a major reason that women do not make up a sufficient proportion of MPs.[4] Proportional electoral systems (like MMP) have been found in multiple studies to result in more women being elected into Parliament.[5] While some studies show an average increase of only 3.5% over other electoral systems, others should twice as many women being elected in proportional electoral systems.[6] Women seeking political success in NZ are luckier than those in other jurisdictions, since we have had a proportional electoral system since 1993 (MMP).

After the introduction of MMP in New Zealand we saw an immediate jump from female MPs making up 21.2% of the last Parliament voted in under a first-past-the-post (FPP) electoral system in 1993, to 29.2% in the first MMP election in 1996.[7] This is undoubtedly a good thing. It fulfils one of the reasons for the introduction of MMP (as indicated by the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform), which was to increase the representation of traditionally disenfranchised groups.[8] However, the fact that the proportion of female MPs has remained stagnant since the introduction of MMP leads to the conclusion that electoral system are not the only barrier to women’s success in politics.

The parties themselves also have a lot to do with gender representation in Parliament. Although women no longer face any legal barriers to their election, party selection processes often inhibit their ability to gain entry to Parliament.[9] University of Auckland academic Jennifer Curtin argues that in order to gain gender parity in Parliament, there must be an increase in selection of women to both electoral and list candidacies.[10] At present, the biggest factor stopping women being elected is that their parties are not choosing them. Although we’ve seen an increase in women in Parliament itself since the introduction of MMP, there has only been a 1% increase since 1993 in the selection of female candidates.[11]

Campbell and Child argue for a supply-and-demand theory of the lack of women selected.[12] Gendered socialisation (women socialised into believing politics is a ‘man’s world’) and the sexual division of labour (women do most housework and childcare) reduces the supply of female candidates. Additionally, the demand for female politicians is low, due to stereotyping feminine characteristics as not suitable for an ideal candidate, as well as suffering from discrimination in the candidate selection process.[13] In order to combat this, parties must make selecting women a priority. If parties select more women to be candidates, it is likely there will be an increase of women entering into parliament, because they are there for people to elect.

Another major problem that female politicians face is the way they are portrayed in the media. Women are portrayed as unelectable or incompetent by associating them with feminine characteristics that are not ‘suited’ to an ideal political candidate.
[14] The media latches on to traits not associated with politics, such as compassion, empathy, and politeness, and attaches them to female politicians to try and show that they are not cut out for the political field.[15] If women act feminine then they are deemed not adequate for the political field. But if the candidate tries to adopt ‘masculine’ (and thus suitable) characteristics, such as strength, ambition, and competitive, they are still portrayed negatively, as “bitter, quarrelsome, and selfish”.[16] It’s a no-win situation for female candidates, who are damned by the media for being ‘too’ feminine and thus not suited for politics, or ‘too’ masculine and not as good as men anyway.

One has to look no further than the opposite portrayals of Jacinda Ardern and Helen Clark in New Zealand politics. From Graham Lowe’s comments of Ardern as a “pretty young thing” and the focus on Ardern’s appearance as opposed to her competency, to Helen Clark’s being (mostly before her time as Prime Minister) constantly criticised for her appearance and accused of being ‘too manly’. The same cannot be said of male politicians, such as John Key and Andrew Little. If the media continues to focus on a female candidate’s appearance or family life, they are detracting from the meaningful messages and competencies those politicians are trying to portray. This makes them appear less competent and can lead to them not being elected, or even selected to run, because they are not taken seriously by the public.

An increase in female MPs in New Zealand can only be a good thing. Descriptive representation for women is important because it increases democratic legitimacy, brings women’s issues to the foreground, and helps engage more women in politics itself.

A democratic government should look like whom it purports to represent. A Parliament that tries to represent 51% of the population with only 32% of its MPs is not doing that. The presence of female politicians contributes to democratic legitimacy of a parliament, because it allows more people to identify with their representatives.[17] Moreover, disadvantaged groups require strong advocates to ensure they are being thought of when law is made.[18] Women are a disadvantaged group in society, and the only way that their concerns are going to be heard is through MPs that look out for them and are concerned by the same issues. Having more female MPs is even more important because it helps bring women’s issues to the forefront of legislative discourse.[19] By having MPs who are affected by these types of issues themselves (parental leave, abortion, equal pay, etc.), they are more likely to bring them up and push for resolution to the problems women face.

Gender, MPs

 

Whilst some may argue that who the representatives are matters less than what they stand for – i.e. that it may be the case that men are just as capable of advocating for women’s issues, there are in fact inherent advantages to having female candidates such as greater belief in the efficacy of political engagement and a greater sense of empowerment.[20] This engagement is two-fold, when there are more women in Parliament: women discuss politics with friends more and engage with political issues more, and they become more politically active and enter the political sphere itself.[21] This happens for women across all age groups, but is especially prevalent among young women and adolescent girls.[22] By seeing women who are “like them” succeeding in the political field, girls feel more confident about their ability to enter into politics.[23] Becoming engaged with politics at a younger age also helps women develop a habit of being involved with politics, which narrows the discrepancy between men and women interested and engaged with politics.[24]

Women’s participation in politics is of vital importance. At present, women face multiple barriers to their entry into political life that they can do little about. It is up to political parties themselves to take active steps to re-engaging women in politics and committing themselves to gender equality.

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[1] Margaret Howard  “The influence of party leaders on women’s representation in parliament, 1935 – 1975: the case of New Zealand”  (2014) Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, at 255.

[2] http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/snapshots-of-nz/nz-social-indicators/Home/Trust%20and%20participation%20in%20government/female-rep-parl-local-govt.aspx

[3] Christina Wolbrecht and David E. Campbell “Leading by Example: Female Members of Parliament as Political Role Models” (2007) American Journal of Political Science at 922.

[4] Mary Crawford “Where are the women MPs?” Australian Parliamentary Review at 11.

[5] Above at 11.

[6] Above at 11

[7] http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/women-mps-in-parliament

[8] Jennifer Curtin “Gendering Parliamentary Representation: A Mixed System Producing Mixed Results” in Manon Tremblay (ed) Women and Legislative Representation: Electoral Systems, Political Parties, and Sex Quotas (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008) at 912.

[9] Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs “Women’s’ Representation in Parliament: a record number of female MPs were elected at the 2005 general election, but women are still under-represented in Parliament” (2009) Politics Review.

[10] Jennifer Curtin “Gendering Parliamentary Representation: A Mixed System Producing Mixed Results” in Manon Tremblay (ed) Women and Legislative Representation: Electoral Systems, Political Parties, and Sex Quotas (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008) at 199.

[11] Above at  195

[12] Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs “Women’s’ Representation in Parliament: a record number of female MPs were elected at the 2005 general election, but women are still under-represented in Parliament” (2009) Politics Review.

[13] Above.

[14] Michela Insenga “An analysis of the representation of female members of the United Kingdom Parliament in the British press” (2014) European Scientific Journal at  182.

[15] Above at 183.

[16] Above at 185.

[17] Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs “Women’s’ Representation in Parliament: a record number of female MPs were elected at the 2005 general election, but women are still under-represented in Parliament” (2009) Politics Review.

[18] Above.

[19] Christina Wolbrecht and David E. Campbell “Leading by Example: Female Members of Parliament as Political Role Models” (2007) American Journal of Political Science at 936.

[20] Above at 921.

[21] Above at 921.

[22] Above at 921.

[23] Above at 924.

[24] Above at 924.