It is widely accepted that Hawke’s Bay would not have its tertiary institute if it was not for the foresight of Margaret Hetley, a firm advocate of higher education for women.
It is fitting then that in officially marking Suffrage 125 on September 19, Eastern Institute of Technology held a short celebration at its Hetley Building. One of EIT’s earliest buildings, it is named in honour of Margaret and her husband Arnaud, and her generous bequest of her estate, now the EIT Hawke’s Bay campus.
Kay Morris Matthews, EIT Research Professor, spoke to the gathering of students and staff, a number resplendent in green and purple suffrage colours. Following this was a ceremonial planting of a white camellia – the symbol at the time of those who supported women’s suffrage – by Geraldine Travers, the first woman Chair of the EIT Council appointed earlier this year.
Kay told the gathering that both Māori and Pākehā women were very active in the Hawke’s Bay suffrage movement. Their efforts to canvas the mainly rural communities to gain 1799 signatures on the 1893 suffrage petition “rather astounded” Kate Shepherd, the leader of the New Zealand Suffrage movement.
“We should be extremely proud that those women helped create history; that New Zealand Aotearoa was the first country in the world to give the vote to women (over 21), including Māori women.”
Across New Zealand one in four women signed the 1893 Suffrage Petition. Once signed into law on 19 September that year, the suffragists then managed to get two out of three women, 90,000 in total, onto the electoral roll in time for the November 1893 election.
“Our female forebears fought for the basic tenet and right that if they were to be ruled by laws, they should contribute to the making of those laws.”
As an educational institute EIT had a responsibility to educate around issues of social importance. “It’s important that we bring attention to the fight for rights for women,” Kay believes.
Being appointed as the Council Chair was something Geraldine Travers says she took for granted. “My career has been in education and having spent five sixths of that in girls’ schools, and being principal in my last two schools, I have an expectation of female leadership. And being in the education sector, I’ve experienced pay parity my whole career.”
Geraldine sees education and suffrage as being inextricably linked. “It was educated women who drove the move for women’s voting rights in New Zealand. They worked the length and breadth of the country to make it happen.”
She also observes that in today’s world, women educated at tertiary level have more opportunity to have greater parity with their male colleagues. Although the number of female partners in professional services firms and around board tables is still not reflective of equality, so she believes women still have a way to go in overriding gender discrimination.
“We are making progress but we’re not there yet. There have been attitudinal changes in my career span for instance, once married women could not be a school principal and nurses had to leave the workforce when they got married. And in fact, my own father couldn’t see why girls needed a tertiary education because they would just get married.”
Geraldine says she is proud of the cultural environment at EIT and points to the makeup of the Council as an example. Half of the eight members are female and there is a variety of ethnicities and ages represented. “We are modelling an inclusive environment.”
When EIT student, Robyn Saltmarsh discovered she was one of three females enrolled for a Level 3 NZ Certificate in Construction Trade Skills (Carpentry) she was thrilled. She expected to be the only one.
A South African who moved to New Zealand two and half years ago, Robyn has been surprised at the number of Kiwi women in the trades. It’s “not at all known in South Africa especially not in schools”, says the 17 year old.
Following in the footsteps of her tradesman father would not have been at all easy had the family not emigrated, and for Robyn working in carpentry is her passion.
She says she battled sexism in her trades class at a local secondary school but sings the praises of the EIT trades school environment. “It’s very inclusive and the trades teaching staff are all really positive and very keen to help.”
She does note though that she’d like to see females portrayed in EIT trades promotions and that male work wear is not particularly flattering while tool belts are not fit for purpose for her female form. “I still like to feel feminine even though I can be doing dirty and physical work.”
In researching the EIT options, Robyn was impressed that the 2017 Trades Student of the Year was Casey Aranui, a 32 year old mother of four. “I want to be a role model like her. I’d like to encourage other women who have a passion for the trades to not be put off by what others think and to press on. We are equal and we need to make a stand.”
It is off campus that Robyn has experienced prejudice for her gender. Mostly though it is positive discrimination. “Sometimes when something is heavy to lift, my co-workers offer to help me, which I do appreciate as men are physically stronger than women. The company I am working for treats me with respect,” she says.
Along with experiencing sexual innuendos, at one building site she had to leave every time she needed a bathroom. She also battles the misguided impression from some workmates that she “needs a hand” with the heavy stuff. “Women are not incapable or weak. We work out ways of doing things. We don’t want to offend someone offering help but really we need to learn by doing,” she says.
In Taryn Wilson’s NZ Diploma in Tourism and Travel programme, there are three males, again another gender discrepancy. The 21 year old moved from Palmerston North after a gap year spent in London, to undertake the two years of EIT study that will ultimately see her working in her dream job. “I love travelling. I can see myself working in outdoor adventure tourism somewhere in the world.”
Taryn says she has had no personal experience of gender discrimination in her life to date. “I work part time at a restaurant in Napier and there’s a mixture of both sexes and it seems to me that everyone just gets on and gets things done.”
An interactive display created by Kym Kayne is in the Twist Library at EIT. People can discover whether their female ancestors signed the suffrage petition though an online registry.