For only the second time in our nation's political history, there are two women vying for the top job. Twenty-one years after Helen Clark and Jenny Shipley battled it out in the 1999 New Zealand General Election, our TV and device screens have now been filled with Jacinda Arden and Judith Collins as they attempt to convince the nation that theirs is the vision that should prevail.
This rarity should be something remarkable.
Except it isn't.
Because it was not, or at least not widely (at least, not when you define such as ‘to be remarked upon’). Now, there will be those that may argue that; is this not what we want? That to have two women, political party leaders, on stage with their gender not being discussed is a goal we should have, is it not? And yes, to a certain extent it is, but not at the expense of an issue that needs to be nonetheless discussed.
Because gender was not raised as a topic during that first debate. Nor the second, or the third. This is despite women being overwhelmingly impacted by redundancies as a result of the pandemic, or that the ‘shovel ready projects’ stimulus funding - is going to sectors of the economy that were overwhelmingly staffed by men.
Gender remains a political issue, and yet we do not see it as a raised issue.
My doctoral research involved investigating how New Zealand women that were on Twitter conceptualised ‘being political’. Or, in other words, what resonated for them in politics. One of the findings - was that political issues were seen through a lens of personal experience. Abstract policy statements were not enough, in order to have what they felt to be a proper understanding of policy, they wanted to see how it impacted people through experience.
But more than that, they were very consciously aware of the social location of those experiences; i.e. things like the racial, ethnic, class, sexuality, socio-economic status etc background of the individual involved, so that they could contextualise and locate those experiences.
And yes, this included gender.
Policy and politics were filtered through salient identities (where the salience depended on the context they were in), and how the lived experience of those identities structured their lives. For them, these things mattered and impacted how much they wanted to get involved in a political issue or felt that a political issue mattered to them.
So many of their choices in their lives, including politics, were about juggling the finite amount of energy they had to expend around things like work, and family, and childcare, and so they picked and chose which political issues they wanted to be involved with. As a result, they picked and chose which political organisations, parties, and politicians they got involved with.
In their interactions with politicians, they wanted to be seen as unique and particular individuals, not merely just another citizen, or just a potential vote. They wanted to be seen, recognised, acknowledged, and importantly; addressed. My participants felt that when the issues that resonated with them personally, or that they were invested in, were specifically mentioned (and concrete action proposed) they became motivated politically. They were more likely to contribute to political discussions, to get involved in political actions, to turn up politically in a variety of political behaviours.
And this is why gender not being addressed at all, whether through our political leaders not addressing the elephant in the room as they stand on the literal political stage, or in how - it intersects with the policy issues that are discussed, or in conjunction with other axes of social location, matters so much.
If lived experience is the lens through which my participants interact with politics and policy, then having the issues they see as important not discussed, disengages them from politics, from policy, doubly ensuring that efforts to improve their lives could be lost. My participants, and others like them, will be able to see the historic gendered nature of this election, and also in contrast see the lack of gender as a raised issue; it becomes conspicuous in its absence. And as a result, there could be a disconnect from political motivation and mobilisation.
And this is why the work of groups like the Gender Justice Collective is so important. By explicitly asking women and non-binary persons about what issues matter to them the most, what issues they want to see addressed by politicians and political parties, and then holding parties and politicians to account, the GJC are taking steps in this direction.
If lived experience from these two women leaders as women is not spoken to, if gender is absent from party policy, and concrete proposals to address gender inequality are not made, then New Zealanders like my participants may be further disengaged. They want their gendered lives seen, acknowledged, and spoken to, and this behoves are representatives to respond.
Sarah Hendrica Bickerton is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Public Policy Institute at the University of Auckland. She is a sociologist whose research involves policy and political concerns around gender and technology. She recently completed her PhD in the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington looking at how New Zealand women Twitter users construct political participation, and her Masters research was on community formation in an email-based mailing list. She is also a big nerd, and can be found buried in her Kindle, graphic novels on her iPad, quietly sipping an over-hopped IPA, or all three at once, with pretensions to being the next Carol Danvers.
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