Dame Jenny Shipley: “Don’t be afraid to lead”

Dame Jenny Shipley, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and the first female in the role, calls on you to act in the Suffrage 125 edition of our Fast Four Questions feature.

Global Women: What is your call to action for men and women today as we mark the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand?

Dame Jenny Shipley: We need to ask ourselves this year whether we are both personally and collectively doing justice to the fight that the women who were suffragettes fought for, and whether we are taking that mission forward in our own lives and in our communities.

It is important for every generation to think about what their responsibility is. Ask the question, what should we be doing, as New Zealand leaders, as we look over the horizon?

Mentorship is also important. Every person reading this has the capability to be a mentor to someone who’s not like them. When you do that, you learn, but you also create an elevator that will make a difference for someone else.


What is your top advice for young women today?

Be a leader. Women do not need to apologise for being leaders, and yet there are still social pressures for us to support rather than lead.

I happened to grow up in an all-girl family and my parents simply expected my sisters and me to lead. To find our voice, to use our voice, and indeed to be effective.

Think about your leadership intent and your leadership purpose. Find your voice in a way that is meaningful. Don’t be afraid to lead.


Can you give us an example of what leadership means to you – and why is it so important?

The 1993 Human Rights legislation that said you couldn’t discriminate against gender in terms of employment was an important step forward. Yet now, many years later, when theoretically we should be in an even position, things like pay are still lagging behind. Legislating is a very important first step but solving the issue also requires proactive behaviour by leaders.

I’ve had the privilege, as a Chair, to say to our executives ‘What is the pay gap across this company?’, to do the analysis, to ask if we have a strategy, and if not, to put one into place, and to systematically and incrementally close the gap.

Being in a leadership role doesn’t mean just occupying the space. It means using the power to influence outcomes in a way that is meaningful. Any fool can describe what’s wrong; leaders identify what’s wrong and then put strategies in place that will change it.


What is your response to those who question whether we are getting to a point where there’s too much emphasis on leadership and not enough focus on progress for ‘ordinary’ women?

I view myself as an ordinary New Zealand women who happened to take some opportunities and exercise some choice. I accept we need to separate economic advantage, that as a result of that advancement. But we live in a nation where you do not have to be a multi-millionaire to succeed. Indeed, I came from a humble background, and was able to rise to Prime Minister. We should celebrate that and allow every woman not to feel held back but enabled.

The women we meet who we describe as ‘ordinary’ are actually leaders. There are leaders everywhere, right across the socio-economic groups, doing absolutely amazing work. I want to acknowledge leadership wherever it is and I personally think if each of us leads a little an immense amount gets done. It’s very easy to socialise women not to take leadership roles because we should be ‘ordinary’. Let’s not fall into the trap. I hope that every woman has the chance to live the life they wish to live, with the means to do it.