120 years of women’s suffrage - but are we there yet?

120 years of women’s suffrage - but are we there yet?

Today marks the 120th anniversary of New Zealand women being allowed to vote (and, since New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote, it marks 120 years of women being allowed to vote, anywhere). That’s a pretty massive milestone.

Lise Edwards, co-founder of Gender Allies and former managing director of Oracle Women’s Leadership, visited New Zealand from the US to take part in the anniversary celebrations and Idealog got to catch up with her about where we’re at with gender equality.

Long story short, 120 years later, we’ve still got a way to go. But it’s not all bad.

Through Gender Allies, Edwards and her team are trying to spread the word about equality and “create a compelling business case for cooperation between men and women in the workplace, with a focus on recruitment and retention”.

She says there are three focus areas of transformation: engaging men, leveraging women’s initiatives and addressing institutional barriers and blind spots. This transformation needs to happen not only in middle management but all the way to the university level. “When you work across gender, you are working at 100% of the game,” Edwards points out. “If you don’t, you’re leaving so much of the workforce behind.”

According to the Gender Allies co-founder, who was recently named one of Silicon Valley Business Journal’s 100 Women of Influence for 2013, the good news is that “the gap is tightening”, just not as fast as we’d like it to.

The good news is that technology trends such as mobility and cloud computing can only help the cause. Remote and virtual working opportunities make a good business case for “women to have it all”. We’ve got the technology - now we just need the mindshift. “Two income families can work if we let them,” she says.

We keep talking about how “women can’t have it all” but forget that men can’t either. “Men are really feeling it too,” says Edwards. “They want to be more involved with their family. They have contributed to holding themselves back in the family. They now want to be the leaders of change and we have an opportunity to be on the same side of the table.”

Comparing to the rest of the world, New Zealand isn’t doing too bad. Edwards says that, globally, Fortune 500 companies have an average of 15.6% of women on their boards. In New Zealand, the number sits between 12 and 13%. It’s progress but you don’t have to be a Maths genius to see it’s not even close to equality yet. However, the number of women CEOs remains low.

“The focus is in the bottom line, getting things out of the door. The workforce gets lost in the shuffle,” she says, adding that “the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Women don’t want to be in higher positions just for the sake of it”.

One of the barriers is the generational and income gap between decision-makers and the rest of the workforce. Decision makers are seldom part of a two-income family. “It’s about showing them why this is important.”

With a little help from technological innovation, New Zealand continues to blaze the trails towards equality. We’re not quite there yet but we’re a lot further ahead than we were on this day, 120 years ago.