Te Whare Pora – conference reflections

I’m just back from attending Te Whare Pora in Wanaka – a two-day convention towards gender equality. The convention asked “what would our world be tomorrow if gender equality were realised today”? We didn’t get any actual answers – and we didn’t resolve gender inequality problems – but the breadth and depth of participant perspectives and experiences gave a rich, contextualised, historicised view of the challenges. Academics were well-represented, from Otago historian Barbara Brookes talking about the history of women in New Zealand, Massey leadership academic and former Black Fern captain Farah Palmer talking about why gender equality matters in sport, to AUT organisation scholar Judith Pringle talking about pay equity, and many others. Our Faculty was represented by Nicola Gavey (Psychology) talking about sexual coercion/violence and high profile ‘panic’ cases, and Nicola Gaston (Physics) talking about why science is sexist (being called Nicola may have been a prerequisite to being invited from Science at UoA!).

However, this was not and academic event, or indeed dominated by academics. The organisers had done a fantastic job of mixing speakers from a wide range of backgrounds, including national and international organisations (Māori Women’s Welfare League; National Council of Women; UN Women), NGOs (Women’s Health Action), and professions (e.g., journalist Paula Penfold) and experiences (e.g., Louise Nicholas).

It’s hard to pick highlights in what was a feast of conversations, but two very different angles grabbed me: the indomitable “sexual health pioneer” Dame Margaret Sparrow, talking about the importance of reproductive autonomy and agency for women – a personal and professional reflection on this ongoing ‘battle’; comedian and author Michelle A’Court – because humour has always been, and always will be, part of the fight for gender equality.

I left the convention feeling somewhat depressed and challenged… the experiences and analyses presented reveal that in terms of gender quality, as the more things change, the more they do indeed seem to stay the same. But at the same time, I felt the convention feeling invigorated – the sense of passion, the evidence of multi-level engagement, and across all sorts of sectors, highlighted the passionate work towards gender equality currently being undertaken.

A disappointment for me – noted by some of the speakers – was a lack of diversity in the audience at the convention – casual observation (though of course casual observation is often flawed, as we know!) suggests that the audience was overwhelmingly older, overwhelmingly Pākehā, and overwhelmingly female (and probably cisgendered)… Despite an amazingly free registration, Wanaka is not inexpensive to get to for those who aren’t local(ish), which may have contributed to the makeup of the participants. Any venue and location opens doors for some people, and closes them for others. But it also raised for me the history of (western) feminist movements, and the critiques of the dominance of white, and often middle-class, perspectives within these.

Talks were recorded and should be online soon, so keep checking in on their website.