Celebrating 25 Years of Scoop
Special: Up To 25% Off Scoop Pro Learn More

Gordon Campbell | Parliament TV | Parliament Today | News Video | Crime | Employers | Housing | Immigration | Legal | Local Govt. | Maori | Welfare | Unions | Youth | Search


Q+A: Parliament speaker tunes out women's voices: female MPs

Q+A: Parliament speaker tunes out women's voices: female MPs

Q + A

Episode 28


Interviewed by MICHAEL PARKIN

MICHAEL So who will leap in first? ‘Pretty little thing’, was it sexist?

JUDITH Well, poor old Graham Lowe. I felt a bit sorry for him, because he thought he was paying a compliment, but actually, it’s not okay to describe a Member of Parliament – a senior Member of Parliament in her party – like that. But Graham would not have at all intended any offence, and it’s a generational thing, I think. It’s just…


ANNETTE Well, of course what Judith said was, ‘Poor old Graham Lowe.’

JUDITH I did! I felt sorry for him. He got such backlash.

ANNETTE So we immediately got into ageism. But I think all politicians are open to scrutiny. But what we shouldn’t be scrutinised on is how we look or our gender, so I think that is the issue. We should be scrutinised. We are there in the public arena and we are open to comments, but I don’t think it’s necessary to comment about how we look, how we dress. They are unimportant issues.

MICHAEL Julie Anne.

JULIE ANNE And I think what it reflects is that there is a kind of unconscious everyday sexism that is at play, and even though we think we’ve made a lot of progress – we don’t want to personalise it and criticise individual people, but the system as it is does contain a certain amount of bias and sexism and that’s why we need, I think, policies to address that, to ensure that women do have equal opportunity.

Advertisement - scroll to continue reading

Are you getting our free newsletter?

Subscribe to Scoop’s 'The Catch Up' our free weekly newsletter sent to your inbox every Monday with stories from across our network.

MICHAEL Is it a consequence, is it a downside, of going out there, trying to broaden one’s appeal through the likes of a women’s mag, and this is the unfortunate side to that?

ANNETTE Well, what about sports magazines or car-racing magazines? That’s irrelevant. It really is how the person performs. Man, women, what age, what race – it doesn’t matter. It’s the performance in what they’re doing, not how they look.

MICHAEL But when you’re trading off your appearance, does that open…?

JUDITH Well, how do we know that someone’s trading off their appearance? The fact is that we obviously have to present policies; we have to present ideas. Obviously we are in a presenting role, but we are also in a thinking role, and actually making sure that our policies make a difference – a positive difference. So it is very easy to go back to our inherent biases and, look, Julie Anne is dead right – everyone has inherent biases and they don’t even sit round thinking, ‘I’m going to go today and be sexist.’ It’s just inherently in us, and we always have to try and overcome it. And sometimes we’re more successful than other times.

MICHAEL Claire, is inherent bias a problem that we all face, that we all have?

CLAIRE Yeah, inherent bias is absolutely everywhere. I think that one of the issues is that since MMP – 1996 we had 29% representation of women in Parliament; in 2015 we only have 32%. We’ve barely moved. There is inherent bias not just in Parliament, but in every business, in every employment, organisation, everywhere you go. And we’ve actually hit this glass ceiling – 30%. People seem to think now we’ve hit 30% and that’s okay, the job is done. Actually, there is something that has to be done in terms of women’s participation to get them up to 50% in Parliament, in workplaces, wherever we go. And until that happens, that bias is going to just keep spreading and being all pervasive, all throughout.

MICHAEL Can you give me an example in your careers where you’ve faced that bias or that sexism – where it has been detrimental to what you’ve been trying to achieve?


JUDITH We don’t like personalising, but you might want to say something.

JULIE ANNE I have worked in a very male-dominated industry. So, I was a transportation consultant and even as a spokesperson on transport and finance, it’s kind of surprising that a woman would be speaking up on those issues, because typically it is a sort of male-dominated industry.

MICHAEL So is it worse in Parliament than it was in your previous career?

JULIE ANNE But it is much worse in Parliament. And this is exactly what I was going to say is that addressing a conference of 150 male traffic engineers, I felt like I didn’t get the same sort of disrespect that I sometimes face in Parliament, and particularly I do think that the current Speaker – unconsciously – is harder on women, cuts off women, is less likely to treat their points of order, take them seriously – of any party – than men. I don’t know if others agree with that, but…

ANNETTE No, I don’t disagree with that. But I make the point that amongst the women here, I did come into Parliament when Rob Muldoon was still there. And I have to tell you that it actually is better now than it was back then.


ANNETTE I’m not saying it’s great. But it is certainly better. And I do think we have a different generation of young men coming on who are now more involved in their families and the upbringing of their children. They’re more sensitive to issues than perhaps we were, and I think Judith made the point, a generation was brought up differently from this younger generation, and I have to say, at Parliament, although, Julie Anne, it is at times bad, it is nowhere near as bad as when I first went into Parliament.

MICHAEL First of all, do you think David Carter has that issue?

JUDITH Well, I think it’s part of his… I think he naturally can hear male voices better than he can female voices, to be frank.

ANNETTE Very kind.

JUDITH And I think that’s not just a generational thing. It’s also about what people are used to, and again, that inherent bias that we all have. Look, one of my most embarrassing situations as a woman Member of Parliament was going to meet with a chief executive of a major company and a couple of my male colleagues coming along. This chief executive actually stood on me to get to my male colleague, and when I said, ‘Excuse me, you’ve stood on me,’ she, the chief executive, said, ‘Oh, I didn’t notice you.’ And I’m sorry, I said, ‘Well, obviously I’m so small you can’t tell.’ But clearly that was a woman with such inherent bias, she couldn’t even see me.

MICHAEL Just from the outside looking in, on the Speaker, before we move on, is that he can’t hear women, is that good enough?

CLAIRE Well, that’s a problem that afflicts a lot of men, actually. They think that a male voice is the voice of authority and a woman’s voice, because often women speak at a higher pitch and some of us have this inflection at the end, that means that they don’t take women seriously, but it’s not just the Speaker – it’s men everywhere.

ANNETTE But it’s not that he hears men’s voices. He actually hears women’s voices for that very reason, and I think that stands out.

JUDITH You know why – you’re getting told off all the time.

ANNETTE But that’s why it’s so unfair.

MICHAEL Are women guilty of it as well? Do men face any sexism in Parliament or any sort of…?

JULIE ANNE No, actually I think women are harder on women, especially because I think that’s one of the consequences of the system being a bit biased is that sometimes women are harder on other women.

JUDITH But I think too there’s huge improvements. Now, I’m a member of Global Women, and we do a lot of mentoring of other women coming through, and I think that there’s—I know Annette certainly does, and I’m sure Julie Anne does, trying to bring other women through, and to help them get over bumps in their careers. Those are the sorts of things that we can do, and we do it now. This was not so common 20 years ago.

ANNETTE That’s right.

JUDITH Or even 15 years ago. And it’s something that I try to do in my work, and sometimes not so good, and sometimes it’s better, but it’s something we can all do.

JULIE ANNE But I think it’s really important to depersonalise it and say, ‘There is something structurally that needs to be addressed.’ And you need to have policies in place to ensure that there is fair representation of all people, and that we aren’t excluded from debate. And the Green Party, for example, has done a really good job. We have 50% of our MPs are female, and they’re not underperforming. It’s not like we have women who aren’t as qualified as the men. I think it just makes it easier for women to come up through the ranks, and they’re actually incredibly hardworking and effective.

MICHAEL Matthew Hooton’s going to charge over here if I don’t ask this question. Obviously there’s the suggestion that you were treated differently during the Oravida saga than Murray McCully was during the Saudi sheep deal because he was a man and because you were a woman. Do you believe that?

JUDITH Well, I’m not going to personalise it, and I think that…

MICHAEL There’s no way to really not personalise a question that’s exactly about something that you’re at the centre of.

JUDITH No, I’m not going to. I’m not going to, because I’ve moved on, and my view is it’s not about me. It’s about all these women who don’t even get the chances to do what we do. They struggle to even get through.

MICHAEL Was Judith treated differently then?

ANNETTE Yes, she was treated differently. And it was obvious. Murray should’ve been treated the same. He should be stood down while there’s an inquiry. He wasn’t. And I think that showed a bias in his favour. Judith can’t comment. I understand that. But just looking at it objectively, you saw him still in his role while Judith was stood down from a third-party email.

MICHAEL Claire, was that the case?

CLAIRE Oh, I haven’t been following it in that much detail, and I’m not going to do this to get Judith out of a hole,…

JUDITH Thanks!

CLAIRE …but I think one of the big issues actually confronting women in politics and sexism in politics is social media, and how easy it is for people to sit at home and fling out an abusive text, which is often – when it’s aimed at women – is around their appearance or something about their personality, as opposed to the issue that they’re trying to communicate, and that is really, really hard. I mean, we haven’t got it as bad as female politicians and commentators in the UK or in America, where they get death threats and…

MICHAEL Can we talk about Maurice Williamson’s comments, obviously, in this speech this week? We don’t want to dredge up what he said, but Labour’s Sue Moroney said it was indicative of a wider problem within the National Party in particular. Do you think there is an old boys’ sort of network, sexism problem within that party?

JULIE ANNE Well, I don’t know the party that well, but from the outside, I don’t doubt it. I think only about a quarter of their MPs are female. It doesn’t seem like a very hospitable environment to women. I don’t know how they do it.

MICHAEL Is National the worst offenders?

JULIE ANNE Well, they certainly have the lowest percentage of female MPs.

ANNETTE I think you’ll find there are members in all parties who make comments that are inappropriate. Maurice is well known for them unfortunately. And there are comments that come from across the other side of the House that are offensive. But that’s not to say that we don’t hear them from other quarters within the Parliament, to be objective and fair about it.

JUDITH Exactly. Yep.

MICHAEL Judith, do you want to change the rough-and-tumble of Parliament? I mean, you give as good as you get.

JUDITH Oh, absolutely, that’s been one of my survival mechanisms in that place. I mean, I am the longest serving National Member of Parliament who is a woman. And I’ve only been there 13 years. And I look at Murray McCully and Maurice Williamson; they’ve been there 27 years each. So don’t tell me that it’s easy being a woman in the National Party.

MICHAEL Do you want to change that?

JUDITH But I will say, though, that yes, and that’s why it’s so important to help other women coming through. But it’s also you don’t get through into Parliament because you’re a shrinking violet. You get into Parliament because you can, in fact, cope with things and you can give it back occasionally. But actually you’ve got to stand up for other people who don’t want to get involved in that either.

MICHAEL I’m not going to argue with you, so we’ll stop right there.

JUDITH Excellent. You’re on a hiding to nothing, Michael.

MICHAEL Thank you very much to you all. Indeed, indeed! Where’s Susan Wood when you need her? Thank you.


© Scoop Media

Advertisement - scroll to continue reading
Parliament Headlines | Politics Headlines | Regional Headlines




InfoPages News Channels


Join Our Free Newsletter

Subscribe to Scoop’s 'The Catch Up' our free weekly newsletter sent to your inbox every Monday with stories from across our network.