Miranda Burdon: Kate Sheppard’s legacy still inspiring at 125th anniversary

It began 125 years ago when the Electoral Act passed on September 19, 1893, granted all men and women in New Zealand the right to vote. The act epitomised our nation’s egalitarian ethos and marked a historic moment in our journey towards gender equality.

As we recognise this milestone of women’s suffrage this month, achieved through the tireless leadership of Kate Sheppard, the question is: Are we there yet? “There” being a sustainable and egalitarian Aotearoa that can thrive in today’s fast-changing world, where women are fairly represented and our different ethnicities, religious ties and sexualities are reflected by our leaders.

Our history of women having a say in the nation’s laws is longer than that of any other country, a fact of which we are justifiably proud. And since 1893, women have voted in greater numbers than men in every election. Progress accelerated from the late 20th century. The 1972 Equal Pay Act continues to play a crucial role in empowering women to achieve financial security. The female labour force has more than doubled since 1986.

At the turn of the millennium it became illegal to discriminate on the grounds of gender, and same-sex marriage was finally legalised five years ago.

Today we have more women and ethnic diversity in Parliament than ever.

Women now make up 38 per cent of Parliament, including some notable senior roles, putting us in the top 20 countries around the world. There is no question this level of representation has supported greater emphasis on many of the issues related to gender equality.

For all our progress, we occasionally forget that it took a whole generation from women gaining the vote in 1893 to being allowed to stand for Parliament in 1919. Or that we didn’t have our first woman member of Parliament until 1933 – 40 years after women’s suffrage was passed. Fast forward another 40 years to 1983, and there were still only eight women MPs.

In 2018 men earn, on average, 9.2 per cent more than women. And women tend be notably under-represented in leadership roles across all sectors. Despite the many champions and role models who have continued to agitate for change over the past century, there remains more to do to ingrain gender equity as a reality.

To fulfil Sheppard’s legacy of equal representation we need to build on our progress and continue to drive for equality by addressing systemic barriers.

My wish list for today’s political leaders starts with the need to address shared parental leave. Last year, only 324 men took paid parental leave compared with more than 30,000 women. This is heavily affected by parental leave legislation putting the onus on one of the parents to step away from the work force – not both.

The next challenge is to prioritise a society where a safe and secure home is the only socially acceptable option for men and women. Domestic violence disproportionately affects women and their ability to work and therefore their independence and financial security.

Thirdly, we need to attribute much more value to unpaid work, such as caring for elders and children – work largely done by women. True gender equality comes when we equally value work that contributes to our whānau, society and our country – paid and unpaid – irrespective of which gender contributes.

Driving for gender equality is a goal all New Zealanders can strive for, and one we proudly hold up as proof of our nation’s egalitarian character.