Women Leading Campaigns - E tū
When Susan invited me to speak to you today, I said yes immediately. The time I spent as a union delegate and then working for this union – then the Canterbury Hotel, Hospital, Restaurant Workers Union – were some of the most important years of my life in terms of who I am today. And I am still a financial member.
The purpose of today’s seminar is to help prepare you as women leading campaigns, which means having the confidence to speak out and stand up for what you want to achieve.
People assume I have always been confident to do so myself. I haven’t. I used to be wracked with anxiety when I stood up to speak. No matter how prepared I was, I was always nervous. It goes right back to my teens. Entering a secondary school speech competition, I stood on the stage and could not recall the first line – cigarette smoking is the greatest single preventable cause of death in society today. I can recall it now, but not then.
I say this because confidence can be learned and we all have within us the capacity to confront our fears and overcome them. The earthquakes proved that to many of us.
So what can I share about leadership?
I was given a necklace by my former staff when I left Parliament – it has a large bead and three smaller beads.
The large one reads: "The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud". It is a quote from the well-known philosopher, Coco Chanel.
That quote is really about how important it is to speak out for what you believe in. Often that requires courage. Especially when you are raising an issue that is controversial or challenging.
I remember when the government of the day brought in the Employment Contracts Act. They used words like ‘freedom of choice’. How can you argue against freedom of choice? It is a common tactic to hide the reality behind language like that.
The three smaller beads speak to community, resilience and leadership. These are words I thought I understood, but didn't truly appreciate until after the earthquake.
Community is not the co-location of houses – that's a suburb. It's the relationship between the people in those houses and their relationship as a group with decision-makers – that's community. And of course community is not limited to location or place – it also refers to communities of identity and interest. A community’s social capital is not measured by socio-economic status; it is measured by the strength of those relationships.
A union is a community. By joining together, you build your capacity to influence decisions that are made in your workplace and through your union as an organisation with industry associations and governments – local, national and international.
Resilience is not strength in the face of adversity – that's stoicism; something we Cantabrians have in spades. Resilience isn't just about maintaining critical functions and bouncing back into shape after something occurs. It’s about the capacity to recover in the long-term better than ever before and if necessary to adapt to a new environment or new conditions.
But more importantly, it is about the capacity to co-create a new future. That requires those of us, in decision-making positions, to let go of the need to stay in control.
We need to share decision-making through partnering, facilitating and supporting. Co-creation is something I now recognise as the true hallmark of a resilient city.
And finally leadership is not a position you hold – it is a mark of character.
People often look to the heroic form of leadership after a disaster – command and control - it can be comforting to have someone else taking charge, knowing what to do. But as I’ve said it’s not what builds resilience and it doesn’t allow for co-creation.
The leadership necessary for the long haul is based on qualities like these – engaging, respectful, inclusive, empathetic and intuitive.
I often make the point that we automatically think of women when we use these words, but we don't always think of women when we think of leaders. The question I pose is whether we have had the heroic form of leadership drummed into us for so long that we don't see the qualities that are essential to bring out the leadership in others. And that is critical to winning campaigns or achieving your goals – no-one can do it alone.
The message I take from my necklace is 'courageous leadership that speaks truth to power and enables communities to co-create the environment in which they live will build resilience in the true sense of the word'.
What a powerful message to carry in a necklace.
I thought I would read you an extract from my Maiden Speech in Parliament on the 19th December 1990:
“I spent my early working-life in another institution in my electorate, Christchurch Public Hospital. I have wonderful memories of the warmth of the kitchen---not the kind of warmth generated by the ovens but the friendliness and kindness of my fellow workmates.
My political consciousness was heightened as I learnt first-hand about the oppression of those people who are given low status simply because of the work they perform. In order to perform its functions properly a hospital must be clean and the patients must be fed properly. Yet workers who perform those tasks are not treated as equal contributors to the overall service.
I have often relayed the story of an incident that occurred that clearly illustrates that point. I arrived at the hospital late one afternoon. I had arranged to go out directly after work so I was dressed up for the occasion. A group of doctors stood blocking my way. One noticed me coming and said: ``Good afternoon''. They all stood back for me, they smiled, and their conversation halted as I passed through. I returned within minutes and approached the same group but this time I was wearing a green smock and I was pushing a trolley. No one moved. I said: ``Excuse me'' but no one heard.
After I had repeated ``Excuse me'' three times they grudgingly moved to one side. This time there was no ``Good afternoon'' and the conversation continued. That taught me a very clear lesson. I had become invisible and no one could hear me simply because of the uniform that I was wearing.
I said “I see my role in Parliament as being the face of the invisible people and the voice of those people who cannot be heard.”
When women are invisible, no matter the role they are undertaking, there are huge consequences, which is why it is important that all our perspectives are heard.
I attended the re-opening of The Women’s Centre on Friday. It came very close to closing after over 30 years. I made reference to the era in which it opened.
1975 was the beginning of the UN Decade for Women. Here in NZ, the United Women’s Convention of that year brought thousands of women together to strategise about a better future. When I became involved in the union movement in the early 80s, we were debating the Working Women’s Charter.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was established in 1984. In fact I remember Anne Hercus leading public workshops for women around the country. I went as a young union woman in my mid-20s as part of a collective of union women determined to ensure that women’s rights embraced vulnerable, low paid women workers, whose choices were not always as clear-cut as the choices others could freely make.
I said we’d come a long way since then. But I fear that in some ways we are slipping back.
Don’t think that the results of the American Presidential election had nothing to do with gender, nor the race for the UN Secretary-General role.
The absence of women from these leadership positions damages the decision-making process itself. Think of those leadership qualities: engaging, respectful, inclusive, empathetic and intuitive.
I attended the 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai in March 2015 –20 years after I attended the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing.
If there is one thing that was reinforced both times, it was the need for women to be at the table when decisions are made.
The challenges we face are greater today than they have ever been – disasters – caused by natural events or man-made - climate change and extreme weather events from storms to droughts, extreme violence, terrorism, income inequality.
If women don't sit at the table when the decisions are made about how to combat all of these, they are condemned to continue to be their greatest victims. That was the message in 1995 and it was exactly the same message in 2015.
And it is true in every sphere of life. If we don't have diversity at the Council table, the boardroom tables, the management tables and the Cabinet table, then we don't get the benefit of the range of perspectives and insights that we all bring to the table. That's how to tackle complex issues – no single perspective can resolve complexity.
So how is this relevant to you?
You are involved in major campaigns on pay equity and the living wage. To be successful, you each need to take on a leadership role. These things don’t occur because someone else delivers them.
And they are harder to achieve when people don’t join together in the community that is taking these issues on – the union.
Having the confidence to have conversations with the people you work with. Being prepared with answers to the questions they may have.
I remember standing on a street corner during the 2005 election campaign and hearing a question that I had never heard someone ask out loud before – ‘what’s in it for me?’ An elderly woman fixed her steely gaze on this young woman and said ‘we don’t ask that question here – elections are about the country not the individual’.
Your union campaigns are no different. They are about the greater good, the kind of work we are expected to perform, along with the remuneration we should expect, free from gender discrimination, which is what pay equity and the living wage are about. These issues are about defining the country we aspire to be.
The strength of your union is based on the quality of your leadership.
Have confidence in yourselves and you will succeed.