19 September marks the 125th anniversary of the 1893 Electoral Act that granted New Zealand women the right to vote. To commemorate this historic occasion, Te Manawa is publishing interviews and profiles of prominent local women at each end of those 125 years.
Dr Farah Palmer is a senior lecturer at the School of Management, Massey University. She played international rugby for the Black Ferns from 1996-2006; under her captaincy the team won three consecutive World Cups.
I think there are areas that we still need to improve. When you look at where we sit in relation to other nations, we’re not reflecting that ideal that we hold onto, in terms of our historic beginnings. But I think it does have an impact on the way we think and the way we behave, that we know we’ve got this history of being a nation that is open to giving women equal rights and equity.
How does society benefit when women have a more equal voice in it?
A diverse range of opinions, ways of thinking and experiences can inform decision-making, and I think that’s a positive. Fifty-one percent of the population is female, so if you don’t have that voice around the table you’re only getting a limited view, and there tends to be a bit of group-think and everyone agreeing with each other, which I think is something diversity avoids – it doesn’t have to be gender, it can be ethnic or cultural diversity, and diversity of ages and experiences as well. Women are also quite influential in terms of what families consume, how we spend our time and our leisure dollar – that kind of thing. So I think having women represented in decision-making roles is a positive for everyone.
How do you think we should best work towards this goal?
I think there’s a combination of agency and structure that we need to change and incluence. So with regards to agency it’s about encouraging women to put their names forward for positions of responsibiity and decision-making. Women want to, and more and more women are seeing this as an option. Even twenty or thirty years ago, they may not have thought they could do a role, but I think that’s definitely changing.
The agency side of things is about giving women the confidence and empowerment to put their hand up for roles. But that’s only one part of the equation. The other side is structural changes: how women get onto boards, how women get into leadership positions, the promotion process, the selection process. Those things need to change, and the unconscious bias that might come into play when deciding who gets a particular role or who is valued. Those are the things we need to change and those structural changes will take longer and will be more challenging.
What do you think are landmark achievements by women in Aotearoa?
The fact that we’ve had female Prime Ministers in our history. I think that’s a landmark in terms of women being in positions of responsibility and leadership in a huge institution.
The fact that we’ve got lots of institutions that are potentially male-only that have broken down those barriers for women. For instance, [I was] the first woman appointed to the New Zealand Rugby Board in 2016, and we’ve seen a huge momentum being gathered within rugby. This weekend we’ve got a “Women in Rugby Governance” conference – we’ve got forty women who are in governance roles at the provincial, Super Rugby, Māori rugby and national levels, who are all going to be there. And I’ve had lots of women approach me and say “hey, I’m interested in doing this, how do I go about it?” and I think that’s really cool. Getting in there, getting into those male bastions, is something we should be proud of as a nation.
What do you think is your finest achievement?
That’s a tough question. I think for me, depending on where I’m at in my life, there have been little milestones. When I first made the New Zealand Women’s rugby team, that was a huge achievement. When I finished my PhD at university, I bawled my eyes out at my graduation because I knew my grandparents would be proud even though they weren’t alive. Those kind of things are really significant moments in my journey that have helped me to think “I can do this!”, and then I’ve gone on to the next challenge.
Being the first woman on the New Zealand Rugby board came with a huge amount of responsibility. That to me was a collective achievement; not necessarily just me, but a whole lot of people behind the scenes making that possible. Winning three World Cups, those are all great moments. Having my children and managing that with a career is a big achievement as well! I would be able to pinpoint one.
What challenges have you faced in your roles because you were a woman, and indeed because you were a Māori woman?
The challenges for me are about the fact that even though women have these opportunities in their careers and leadership, there is still this social expectation that we are the primary caregivers and look after the children and the household. That is an underlying expectation that women themselves may feel at times, and we need to let that go. We need to get our partners on board and gain support from them in order for us to find balance. So for me that’s one of the challenges – how do I combine being a mother and a wife with working in an environment that at times is not family-friendly.
As a Māori woman, you have the double-whammy of at times experiencing implicit or explicit sexism and also racism, which is often quite veiled; you’re not quite sure if you perceived that the right way, “did I just overreact to that?” So there’s a lot of where I choose what I’m going to call people out on, and at other times just ignore it and let it wash over me, and get my “revenge” by bringing about some kind of change in the process or decision-making.
Who are your heroes and role-models, past and present?
This is an interesting question for me because I’ve never tried to be like anybody. I’ve just tried to be the best I can be. But there have been some people who have influenced me at different times in my life: the teachers that I had at [high school] had a real impact on me; they believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. They made just small gestures that made me think “I can do this”, so that really changed my mindset. Of course my Mum has been a huge influence on me and taught me a strong work ethic. My gran, my nana and my koro have really given me some underlying values and principles that have carried me through to where I am today. My coach Darryl Suasua, he was another person who had a huge influence on what I thought I was capable of doing, helping me develop as a captain and a rugby player. Waimarama Taumaunu; I got a scholarship to go to university, and she was there as a mentor for me. She scared the living daylights out of me, but kept me on the straight and narrow. And I had a mentor at Otago University as well. So throughout my time there’ve been people who have provided me the right piece of advice or the right kind of support. All my teammates that I’ve played rugby with have all really helped me on my journey
Is there anybody that you’d recommend young women look to today?
I would encourage young women to look at themselves in the mirror and see all of their strengths, see what they can contribute to whatever their passions are. I really do believe that if we look at ourselves in the mirror and look at ourselves with optimism and with a positive frame of mind, look at the people you interact with daily…it’s great to have role-models and see people on television and aspire to be like them, but it’s the people around you that influence you daily.
Is there anything you’d still like to achieve, or wished you’d achieved?
Oh yes, there’s always things I’d like to achieve. I’m an academic, so I’d love to do meaningful research and publish that research and be seen to be doing well in that regard. I’m the mother of two young children and I’d like to do my best in that role. I really want to make an impact on the New Zealand Rugby board and I feel like that’s starting, but there are some big challenges coming up for New Zealand rugby. I’m looking forward to my role on the Sports New Zealand board and what influence I can have there, and getting more Māori into tertiary education and through to the other end, in terms of graduating. That makes me feel good, and makes me feel like I’m giving back to the people.