The New Statesman Profile - New Zealand, a woman's land

Men turned it into an extreme free market society; now, women are trying to clear up the mess. New Z

Imagine, if you can, Prime Minister Antonia Blair jousting with the leader of the opposition, Wendy Hague, in the House of Commons, before returning to Downing Street to consult her cabinet secretary, Ruth Butler, about a matter that is being referred to the lord chief justice, Lucy Woolf. They decide to consult the attorney general, Geraldine Williams, while requesting a meeting with Patricia Bonfield (the head of the country's biggest company), Katy Livingstone (the mayor of the country's biggest city), as well as Margaret Wright (the leader of the Green Party).

It sounds like a 1970s feminist utopia, a separatist vision of a parallel world in which men, or at least powerful men, had been abolished. It is certainly a fantasy; it could never happen here. Or could it? For there is a country where virtually every top job is now held down by a woman: New Zealand. The Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe may be the country's best-known export, but the women are its news-makers and power-holders. Helen Clark is the prime minister; Jenny Shipley, a former prime minister, is the leader of the opposition; Sian Elias is the chief justice; Margaret Wilson is the attorney general; Marie Shroff is the cabinet secretary; Christine Fletcher is the mayor of Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand; Jeanette Fitzsimons is the leader of the Green Party; and Theresa Gattung is the chief executive of Telecom, the biggest company in New Zealand. Truly a woman's land.

On 4 April, one more influential woman completes the Kiwi sweep: Dame Silvia Cartwright (portrait opposite), a trailblazer for feminism in her country, will be sworn in as the new governor general - in effect, the Queen's representative in New Zealand. Dame Silvia was in London last week for meetings with the Queen, who remains New Zealand's head of state despite the country's growing republican movement. Dame Silvia's view is that a republic is not a burning issue for now, and she claims that there is still a good deal of warmth in New Zealand towards the Queen. So Dame Silvia will carry out constitutional duties on the Queen's behalf: to appoint the prime minister and cabinet, to summon and dissolve parliament, and to receive visiting heads of state.

Dame Silvia's appointment is non-political - her duties are largely ceremonial. Yet it is an important job, and she agrees that her appointment has been met with more surprise here in Britain than back home in New Zealand: "It is well accepted in New Zealand [that women get top jobs]; it may not be accepted with total enthusiasm in every quarter - but then, that's true of any major appointment - yet certainly I didn't get any sense of astonishment."

Dame Silvia is 57, immaculately dressed in black, and has a regal air about her. She is only the second woman to have taken on the post of governor general, a job usually filled by male brigadiers, viscounts and army generals. She describes herself as a feminist and was a successful lawyer before taking up her present job. She was the first woman to be made high court judge in New Zealand, and the first female chief judge of the district court.

Dame Silvia talks as though she hadn't set out to be a pioneer, simply taking jobs that came along, realising somewhere along the way that she had become a role model. Accompanying Dame Silvia on her visit to Britain is New Zealand's cabinet secretary, Marie Shroff. The pair of them are utterly at home with their place in society, and both are clearly slightly bemused that "governance by women" is causing such surprise in London.

In one sense, New Zealand has always been ahead of the times. It was the first country to give women the vote, back in 1893, long before the hardest and most violent of the suffragette struggles in Britain. It doesn't have full equality, but is so far ahead of the UK as to be out of sight. Today, 30 per cent of seats in parliament are held by women, a figure achieved only recently, since the electoral system was changed to a form of proportional representation. Dame Silvia believes that changing the voting system to PR played a big part in increasing women's representation, and also brought about changes for the minority Maori community: "There is now the same proportion of Maori MPs as there are Maoris in the general population, but women still haven't quite made it." Does she think there will ever be truly equal representation for men and women? "I hope so," she replies, "but it won't be in my lifetime."

Still, the picture is far better in New Zealand than in Britain, where the number of women MPs is predicted to fall considerably after the next election, regardless of the result, because there have been no all-women shortlists this time around. Dame Silvia diplomatically refuses to speculate as to why Britain's 120 women MPs have not been judged a great success in this parliament. "It is a very large majority the government has here, and it must be very difficult to make a name for oneself," she muses politely.

So just what is the magic ingredient that has led New Zealand's women to the top? After all, this is generally considered a macho society, known above all for its sportsmen, its rugby, its rugged farmers. And it is not, like the Scandinavian countries that also have strong female political representation, a naturally left-leaning, social-democratic nation. Indeed, until the mid-1990s, it was looked to not for its female successes, but as a radical political experiment - the most extreme of the government-slashing, privatising regimes of the time, out-Thatchering Thatcher. (The experiment failed in the end.)

I ask Dame Silvia if class is at the root of it all. Could it be that women have advanced further in New Zealand because the class system is much less obtrusive than it is in Britain - because of the openness of a society that is younger in attitude?

Could it be, even, after a century and more, the practical, why-not, pioneer's attitude to life? Dame Silvia doesn't have one, clear answer. Perhaps there isn't one. Yet she insists that the prominence of women at the top is not simply tokenism: "The prime minister and the leader of the opposition and all of them are there because they are very talented women." They didn't get their jobs, she believes, because a certain image was wanted, "but because they are very talented politicians or businesswomen or whatever."

And yet, I persist, it cannot merely be that New Zealand has very talented women while other countries don't - it must have taken an extra push to have got to this level of representation. Dame Silvia puts it down to a number of mentors: some women, some men, who encouraged women to go for the jobs in the first place. Then it just grew "exponentially". This sounds highly plausible: networks breed networks, people in power spot and recruit others who are similar to them - the revolution takes place over coffees and job interviews, replacing the male bars and clubs of a generation ago.

Women in New Zealand are finding success not only in visible positions. "We're not just talking about a little layer on the surface," says Dame Silvia, "but it's right through the system." On the other hand, she doesn't really think that New Zealand is any different to other societies. "Chauvinism is still there, but it's no longer overt . . . much discrimination at the unintended level still remains, and I believe that is the most subtle and difficult to overcome."

So how much difference has it made, having a raft of women at the helm of the country? Not that much, according to Dame Silvia: "It's very hard for me to assess whether it has changed the culture. I do know that women do things differently from men, but in the end they have the same job to do whether they're male or female, and I haven't perceived a huge change." She believes that it has been a quite natural evolution, that there has been "nothing extreme about what's happened".

This low-key assessment of the change is backed up by academic research on the New Zealand House of Representatives by Dr Sandra Grey from the Australian National University. Her study "Does Size Matter? Critical Mass and Women MPs in the New Zealand House of Representatives" found that when women achieved 15 per cent representation, there was some feminisation of New Zealand's political agenda. Yet when it increased to 30 per cent, in 1996, there was little further change. A combination of "party allegiance, a male backlash and social conservatism" prevented any significant alteration of the political culture or policy outcomes.

In fact, equal pay remains a distant goal for many women workers in New Zealand, and the country has not been forging ahead on traditional "women's issues" such as maternity pay: in this respect, the system lags behind what we have in Britain. Neither Dame Silvia nor the prime minister, Helen Clark, has children, so is it the case that women find combining a family with a career as difficult in New Zealand as anywhere else? Dame Silvia made a positive choice: "When I might have had children, it was a time when it was a choice between that and taking a partnership in a legal firm - if I'd delayed joining the partnership for five years, I might have missed my opportunity." She admits that it remains much more complicated for women with families.

So, at first sight, there is a disappointing final act to the female drama of New Zealand: the powerful women have not feminised their society, or even provided the economic and social bulwarks we might have expected.

But it is not the final act, nor anything like it. The arrival of women on top was caused by mentors, individual choices and networks, not by a dramatic storming of barricades by the sisterhood. And wider social changes may take root and last only if New Zealand's female leaders are seen as absolutely ordinary, mainstream politicians, rather than radical challengers.

The right-wing free-market experiment of a decade ago was very much a boys' thing - bold, radical and loud. Perhaps, after all, it is not so surprising that the women are clearing up and sorting things out in a quieter, calmer manner. Not every female leader, thank God, has to be a Thatcher.