Suzy McKinney: We don't live in a post-feminist era

Being expressive and writing on a long haul flight is hard. I am sure that my fellow passengers are being distracted and probably annoyed by the brightness of my laptop screen. Thoughts don’t fly out of my head very quickly when I’m writing from a glorious giant metal feat of technology that is flying faster than I can think. The man next to me is probably reading what I am typing. If so, thank you for offering me a mint. That was nice of you. 

It’s also a time of forced contemplation. There’s little to do for at least eight hours, once you’ve watched one bad movie, eaten one conveniently packed airline meal and predestined at least half a cubic metre of packaging to landfill. This is especially so when you’re flying alone.

I am not flying alone. I am flying with eight other women, travelling as a New Zealand Delegation to the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen. This event is the largest gathering on the health and rights of women in the last decade. Here, government and civil society leaders come together to talk about the role of women in sustainable development.

I received some interesting reactions from people back at home when I mentioned that I was going to Copenhagen to talk about girls and women, and about development. There was talk of suffrage and suffragettes, of the length of skirts in Auckland high schools, of Hilary Clinton. There was enthusiasm for promoting the rights of women, and of the rights of women to not have their ponytails pulled. There was not a lot of understanding of the connection between promoting the rights of girls and women and sustainable development, or the idea that gender equity benefits more than just the underdog and serves a purpose higher than what is academic or moral.

Although I am absolutely certain that the ethical argument for promoting the rights of girls and women simply on the basis of respect for human rights can stand alone, this conference is not about promoting the rights of girls and women purely for the sake of equality being a generally nice and desirable thing.

(I would go to that conference, too.)

This conference is about the overwhelming amount of evidence that when the world invests in girls and women, developmental indices improve disproportionally above and beyond the improvements that would be expected if the same amount of resource was put into people of both genders.

When development programs invest in the health of women around the time of pregnancy and immediately afterwards, the health outcomes of the children they bear improve in the long term with a tangible effect notable for decades onwards.

Empowerment of girls and women through education leads to better opportunities for families. There is much evidence that improving the economic status of women and their power within relationships leads to markedly different decision making within families: empowered women make sure their families finances are managed in a way that benefits their children and communities. 

The economic argument for advancing women’s equality is irrefutable. A McKinsey Global Institute report found that improving gender equality can add $12 trillion to the global economy. It was agreed fairly universally by the international community around the time of the passing of the world’s new development goals, the Sustainable Development Goals, that the “women’s agenda” has become the world’s agenda, and that empowering girls and women is the only way to meaningful sustainable development.

Not just a conference about equality, for equality’s sake.

There are a few more things I wish people back home understood a little better.

In the first instance, I'd like people to recognise that we do not live in a post-feminist era when there is still a 12% gender pay gap in New Zealand and where rates of family violence and sexual abuse towards women are among the highest in the OECD. Ponytail-tugging is not the most important kind of assault on women.

We do not live in a post feminist era when the percentage of women in our Parliament has been decreasing over the last two election cycles, and where a cross-party group of female Parliamentarians are asked to leave the house because they disclosed information about being victims of sexual assault.

Almost more importantly however, I wish people understood that gender equity is not just a woman’s issue, or an issue of an academic or moral nature that I care about just because it upsets me that it is unfair. 

Just as we now understand on an international level, promoting the rights and health of women in New Zealand is valuable because it helps everyone: it improves the health, wellbeing and socioeconomic status of families and children, eases the burden of disease and mental illness on men and improves social cohesion, among many other developmental indicators.

Gender equity is not just about ponytails, and Women Deliver more than just statistics about equality.

 If we can have international conferences about how gender equity helps everyone and is therefore urgently important, we can talk about it at home. If we can feasibly say that improved gender equity means economic growth for NZ, healthier children and happier communities, isn't that a conversation worth having? 

You don't have to fly to Denmark to start that conversation. 


All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute

Posted on May 17, 2016 and filed under Women Deliver 2016.