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Elizabeth Kerekere, Golriz Gharahman and Kiri Allan have all left politics in dramatic fashion in the past 12 months (Design: Archi Banal)
Elizabeth Kerekere, Golriz Gharahman and Kiri Allan have all left politics in dramatic fashion in the past 12 months (Design: Archi Banal)

OPINIONPoliticsJanuary 17, 2024

The dramatic exodus of brown women from parliament is no surprise

Elizabeth Kerekere, Golriz Gharahman and Kiri Allan have all left politics in dramatic fashion in the past 12 months (Design: Archi Banal)
Elizabeth Kerekere, Golriz Gharahman and Kiri Allan have all left politics in dramatic fashion in the past 12 months (Design: Archi Banal)

If your workplace isn’t designed for you to succeed, you won’t. And parliament is no friend to women or people of colour, writes Madeleine Chapman.

There are some jobs that only particular people can do, or at least do well. It takes a certain patience and temperament to be a good teacher. You can’t be a surgeon with nervous jitters. And unfortunately for those with poor eyesight, flying planes is out of the picture. But in a capitalist world it’s understood that everyone who can, should work, and therefore everyone should be equally able to do most jobs.

But that’s just not true.

There are whole industries built around the assumption that workers will have no other pressures on their time and energy (not to mention assumptions of wealth and access). Work is life, and so on. Those who succeed will be able to commit fully to the job because they’ll have wives to care for their children, won’t be fearful of public perception around looks and tone, and won’t waste (read: spend) time concerned about societal injustices because they won’t be personally impacted by them. With those boxes ticked, the sky’s the limit.

And boy do the boys succeed. If you want to look at the same picture 30 times, visit the “our people” page of any New Zealand law firm. The partners (the highest position) are always listed first and are known to have committed ruthless hours and investment to get there. You won’t see many women and you’ll see even fewer Māori or Pacific faces. 

Former Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman (Photo by Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images)

Of the 47 current partners listed at Russell McVeagh, 14 are women. At Bell Gully, it’s 16 of 48. These are all improvements – 10 years ago some of those statistics would’ve been zero. Is it just that women are bad at law or don’t have enough ambition? Do Māori and Pacific people just not want to earn millions? Or have law firms famously been structured in a way that promotes masculinity and European ideals and rejects everything else? 

Law isn’t the only sector like this. Journalism as a sector prides itself on the commitment, doggedness and passion required to succeed. There’s no shortage of women but there’s a persistent lack of non-white journalists in senior positions. And it’s not because they can’t write or don’t have thoughts on how news should be covered in Aotearoa. Politics is no different. In the past decade, we’ve seen an influx of “progress” – a whole lot of diverse backgrounds in parliament that we’ve proudly trumpeted as a nation. But despite the change in personnel, which has come about through more concentrated efforts within parties, the requirements for success in parliament haven’t changed. 

Don’t enjoy combative interactions multiple times a day? Should’ve thought about that before running. Can’t handle a bit of casual racism or “boys’ talk” at public meetings? Pick another sector. Don’t know how to separate debate about injustice from your lived human experience? Find a job that’s better suited to your background. Don’t like death threats? Don’t get into politics.

These are expectations and requirements designed by the very people who have most benefited from them. They haven’t been proven to foster genuine success in any industry – particularly not in politics – and yet they persevere. Politics is best suited to those who separate the intellectual from the personal and ironically don’t separate their lives from their jobs. 

Kiri Allan in January 2023
Kiri Allan in January 2023 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

So as we watch brown woman after brown woman succumb to “the pressures of the job”, it’s worth remembering that not all MPs have the same pressures. If you’ve never worried about how your wider community might react to your work or the decisions you make, that’s one less pressure. If you’ve never ignored a casually racist or sexist or homophobic remark at your expense, that’s one less pressure. If you have always been confident that your bosses have your best interests at heart, that’s one less pressure. If you’ve never been the “first” of anything in your industry or workplace, that’s one less pressure. And if you’ve never had to deal with threats of violence and death as “part of the job”, that strangely seem to only be part of the job for women and especially women of colour, that’s one less pressure.

As we head into three years with a new government and a handful of new, exciting “first” MPs, it’s past time we considered what our expectations of MPs are and what is required to succeed in parliament. Do we want good politicians or good representatives of our people? And can both exist within one role? Because $170,000 a year might be enough to buy a fancy dress but it’s small compensation for the complete loss of self. 

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