When Helen Clark was first elected to New Zealand’s parliament in 1981, she was one of only eight female lawmakers among the 92 representatives. Now, women account for nearly 38 percent of the parliament, including a new prime minister who is expected to deliver a baby this month.
Clark, who was prime minister from 1999 to 2008, said that New Zealand’s political scene has come a long way to become gender-friendly and that it is time for Japan to push harder to increase female representation in the Diet and its companies.
“I think women have to come forward, and obviously it’s good if men make them welcome. I think political parties have to try harder to recruit women,” Clark told The Japan Times during a visit to Tokyo late last month.
“You have a major party here that has been in the government for most of the time. It could have a policy of saying, ‘We are going to really make a point of selecting women.’ If you look at what other parties in other countries have done, there are a range of ways to make sure that women are elected,” she said.
As examples, she referred to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour Party, which used all-women shortlists to select candidates for certain constituencies before the 1997 election. She also mentioned how some of Norway’s parties require 50 percent of their candidates to be women.
“Parties can do that themselves and take special measures,” she said.
Last month, the Diet — which is only 10.1 percent female in the Lower House and 20.7 percent in the Upper House — enacted a law that obliges political parties to make every effort to try and “equalize as much as possible” the number of men and women fielded in national and local elections.
Though a significant step in Japanese politics, the law isn’t legally binding and only urges that parties make voluntary efforts.
Japan was ranked 114th out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s annual gender gap report in 2017, due mainly to the poor representation of women in politics.
Clark, who has been a strong advocate of female leadership, stressed that Japan needs to think about how family-friendly the Diet can be.
In New Zealand’s parliament, in addition to the child care facilities inside, women can bring their babies into the lobby. The parliamentary recess is timed to coincide with school holidays so members can spend more time with their families in their constituencies, and Wellington also ended Friday sessions so politicians can have extended weekends at home.
Though New Zealand in 1893 became the first country to give women suffrage, Clark admitted that she encountered gender-based criticism when she became a politician.
“When I became the leader of the opposition, there was a lot of gender-based criticism about clothes and hair. They picked out personal things in the way they never commented on men,” she said, adding that she was often described by the media as “aggressive,” with somewhat negative connotations, rather than strong.
The political climate has since changed, but Clark claimed that insensitive gender-biased questions were also directed at the current prime minister, 37-year-old Jacinda Ardern, when she took office last year.
“There were still questions asked from male journalists wanting to know whether she will be having children, claiming that the electorates have the right to know whether the prime minister would be at work. They weren’t asking men whether they are going to have a stroke or heart attack and be at work or not,” Clark said.
The lawmakers aren’t any better she said, recalling that during one debate, an opposition politician harangued Ardern, shouting, “Don’t be a silly little girl!”
“Can you imagine? And now this person won’t confess,” Clark said.
As it turns out, Ardern is expected to give birth next month and take six weeks of parental leave, but Clark said that an acting prime minister would be appointed to take care of her work and that it is perfectly normal for her to take such leave. “That’s why you have a deputy when you can’t be there,” she said.
In 2009, the former leader of the South-Pacific country was named administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. She then made an unsuccessful bid in 2016 to replace Ban Ki-moon as secretary-general.
“I’d say I’d never met a glass ceiling I couldn’t break until I went to the U.N.,” she said. “More than 70 years after the U.N. was founded, it never had a woman leader. Never.
“And it’s not just about me. There were more women candidates than male candidates last time. And there were other women who could have done the job.”
The selection process for U.N. secretary-general is always complicated, with geopolitics involved. Clark believes her policies and those of her country, such as staying out of the Iraq War and standing against nuclear weapons, also stood in the way of her bid for the top post.
“That’s not necessarily something admired by the great powers. Then you added this gender factor. Strong woman, independent-minded, small country. There is a constellation of issues, but you would be blind to think that there was not a gender dimension. It’s not the whole story, but it’s part of it,” she said.
Touching on trade and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP-11, adopted in March without the United States, Clark commended Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s initiative to save the multilateral trade deal.
“Japan has historically been quite protectionist of some things, particularly agriculture. But full credit to Mr. Abe who has driven us.
“I don’t see the U.S. coming back anytime soon, but at some point, it will have to reconsider,” she said. “Inevitably, the Asia-Pacific dynamic will develop without it, and the U.S. can’t afford to be isolated from the dynamic.”
Asked what her next priorities are, she said cheerfully, “I am a public advocate of gender equality, sustainable development and some of the basic health issues . . . and basic human rights issues.”
Clark is a frequent user of social media and has more than 178,000 followers on Twitter. Her posts deal with subjects ranging from crowdfunding promotions for families in Gaza to ensuring women’s rights. She also tweets in support of antipoverty movements and sustainable development goals.
Clark praised the #MeToo movement that started in Hollywood but has since spread to many other countries, including New Zealand and Japan.
“Everybody knew, but no one said anything. That’s what I like about #MeToo. People now say, ‘I am not going to allow this. I’m not gonna tolerate,’ “Clark said.
“My message to Japanese women is to get organized. We have to have male allies, but women have to push to get organized themselves. Women in political parties, women in corporations, women in public administration, women in film and television sector. Women need to network and get organized and support each other,” she said.
“And the next step would be for male politicians to be taking more opportunities to talk about the equal treatment of women, the zero tolerance of discriminatory attitudes and behaviors.”