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New Zealand tries to give women a boost

In 1893, New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the vote. Sixteen years earlier the first women had graduated from a New Zealand university; 1896 saw the first woman graduate in medicine; and the following year the first female lawyer earned her degree.

But since then, New Zealand women have not come a long way, baby. As the Human Rights Commission pointed out recently, there is just one woman bank manager in the country, and on average women workers earn one-quarter less than men.

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To rectify this, the new Labour government of David Lange has appointed New Zealand's first minister of women's affairs.

Anne Hercus, a former lawyer and mother of two, is also minister of social welfare and the nation's first woman minister in charge of the mainly male police force.

She is one of two women in the Cabinet - a record number - and Prime Minister Lange has also appointed the first woman to the important parliamentary post of majority whip.

Ms. Hercus says there is no ready explanation of why, after decades of women's participation in the work force, there are not more women at top levels in business and public life. ''There are no real legislative barriers any more, '' she says. ''So one is left with the conclusion that the last barriers are in the mind, and these are the hardest to change.''

She says her ministry's first task is researching why women still lag behind. She ruled out legislation, saying: ''I believe reforms come from a community accepting the validity and the need for change.''

Hercus says her ambition for the women's affairs portfolio is to make herself redundant. ''That's the ultimate affirmative action - when it's no longer needed.''

In recent years, women have made some progress in Parliament, although they were not allowed to stand until 1919, 26 years after they received the vote.

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The first woman was not elected until 1933, and there were only four women members after the 1978 election. This doubled to eight in 1981 and a record 12 were elected last month. With 95 MPs, the female half of the population is still underrepresented.

Hercus's appointment coincided with a report by the Public Service Association, the public servants' labor union, which concluded that women were under-represented in the highest levels of all the major institutions of society.

''Although women's participation in the paid labor force continues to increase, women remain concentrated into a narrow range of usually low-pay and low-status occupations,'' the report said.

Official figures show that about one-third of New Zealand's work force of 1.3 million people is female. But more than half the women are in stereotype jobs, such as typists, teachers, and nurses. Only 7 percent of women have executive or managerial positions.

This position was highlighted by a recent New Zealand Human Rights Commission report on the banking system which concluded that traditional practices of recruitment, training, and promotion left women a disadvantaged group.

While noting that in the United States banking system, women ''constitute a significant proportion of the managerial talent,'' the commission said that did not apply in New Zealand.

It said women dominated the lower grades as clerks and tellers, while females accounted for only 1 percent of executives. There was just one woman manager, and only one bank had a woman on its board of directors.

The commission recommended that banks adopt an explicit affirmative-action program, which would be the first in New Zealand. ''This initial step has to be taken by someone, and the banks are institutions that are particularly well fitted to do this because of their size, the number of women they employ, and their status within the community.''

Although New Zealand has officially outlawed sexual discrimination, there are no legal requirements for affirmative action in employment.

Hercus pledged full consultation with the nation's managers before drawing up affirmative-action programs. She rejected a quota system as ''an American technique which has been tried and failed,'' saying it is ''totally inappropriate within the strategy of consultation that I envisage.''

Hercus has said the government will ratify the United Nations convention on the elimination of discrimination against women adopted by the General Assembly in December 1979.

The previous government declined to ratify it amid bitter controversy similar to that in the US over the Equal Rights Amendment. Supporters say ratification is essential to enshrine equal rights in New Zealand society, but opponents argue that it seeks to bring about a unisex society and will harm traditional values of family life.

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