The new Minister for Women, Julie Anne Genter, is a full-time feminist. “Every day of the week, 24/7. And I just think we need to keep reiterating there’s nothing about supporting the equality of all people that we should have to apologise for.”
In the first weeks of her tenure, she has quickly set herself apart from her predecessors Louise Upston (who didn’t call herself a feminist because she wasn’t interested in being a “flag-waver”) and Paula Bennett (who was apparently a feminist on “most days”). And unlike former Prime Minister Bill English, Genter knows exactly what the word “feminism” means. “It means that all people are equal.”
You could say that she’s off to a good start.
As Minister for Women, Genter has a lot of work to do, but she says there is one thing she is especially keen to accomplish during her time as a minister. “My number one priority is closing the gender pay gap in the state service, in the core public service. That’s something I believe we can do within 3-4 years, but I’ll also be progressing new legislation that should make very clear, easy pathways for women and all people working in female-dominated professions that have been underpaid in the past to have a pathway for them to get fair pay.”
She also wants to reduce rates of violence against women – and believes Aotearoa has not been doing enough in the past. “It’s a systemic and challenging problem,” she says, adding that a whole-of-government, “more victim-centred” approach that is better resourced could help. A bill from Jan Logie calling for employers to grant more leave for domestic violence survivors could also help, she says.
Genter has a long list of changes she’d like to make. She’d like to see parental leave increased beyond the new Government’s 26 weeks (“it’s a great step in the right direction, I think we need to look at how all parents have the support they need to look after their children. All of us benefit from that.”). She’d like to combat sexual violence (“Sexual violence and sexual harassment in the workplace is very much about power and not sex. There has to be a policy, and it has to be clear.”). She’d like to see better consent education in New Zealand.
And that’s not all. Genter’s only just getting started.
Her fervour for the portfolio is obvious. “I’m passionate about taking whatever steps we can take to remove the barriers to women – not just women, actually trans people, women of colour, people of colour; tangata whenua especially have an incredibly important place in Aotearoa.”
She is blunt in her criticism of abortion still being in the Crimes Act. “It shouldn’t be,” she says. “We have an ally in the Prime Minister, and I expect to see law changes in this area to see that abortion is treated as a health issue, not a criminal issue. It’s very clearly a woman’s choice, and she needs to be supported.”
The high cost of sanitary products like tampons, pads and menstrual cups also needs to be addressed. “There is already work progressing in this area,” Genter says. “I think this is something the three parties in government have shared values around. I’m sure it’s going to be high on the radar for our Minister for Social Development. Sanitary products probably should be classified as a necessary item. I know that there’s some work being done as well in making available other products – I’ve used a menstrual cup for 12 years. It takes a little practise, but actually it’s really convenient. It’s a high up-front cost, but it reduces what I have to pay over time. It’s also more environmentally friendly and possibly better for my health.” Ensuring public agencies are making sanitary products available for women on benefits or low incomes is important to her. As she says, “Government needs to step in and help.”
What about the Black Ferns being paid less than the All Blacks? Genter doesn’t hesitate with her answer. “It’s shocking the Black Ferns are paid so much less.”
And what about those people who argue there needs to be a Ministry for Men?
“We’ve had a male-dominated Parliament and male-dominated leadership, and it hasn’t been delivering for all men,” Genter explains. “Perhaps a more diverse and inclusive government will actually get better outcomes for all people, including men. I actually think we need more women and more diversity and more gender-diverse people in powerful positions, because then I think we’ll get better outcomes for everyone.”
She has her work cut out for her, but she doesn’t seem daunted. It seems unlikely that her Ministry will be concerned about the optics of “flag-waving”.
Unsurprisingly, she has some characteristically forthright advice for young women.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t be afraid to have strong feelings about things,” she says. “Don’t worry if you feel discouraged or afraid. We all go through that. We need you to love yourself, look after yourself, and step up so you can be there to help us transform the world for the better.”Support Villainesse