They say that a picture speaks a thousand words and this photograph from 1927 from the Taituarā – Local Government Professionals Aotearoa archives indeed says a lot about gender representation at the top echelons of local government in New Zealand.

Taken 94 years ago outside the Parliamentary Library in Wellington, this photograph recorded the inaugural meeting of the New Zealand Institute of County Clerks which officially became an incorporated society the following year. Taituarā traces its whakapapa directly back to this organisation which joined with the New Zealand Institute of Town Clerks and Municipal Planners to form the Society of Local Government Managers (SOLGM) in 1988. We finally became Taituarā — Local Government Professionals Aotearoa last month.

Although New Zealand women were the first in the world to get the vote in 1897, amidst the three-piece suits and moustaches, just two women join a sea of men collectively responsible for the direction of local government. It's unclear what their roles were, and whether they indeed each represented a county or were perhaps accompanying spouses. We would love to know! What is clear is that women were in short supply at the decision-making table.

Fast forward to 1957 and things hadn’t improved much. This photo of the participants of a training course at Victoria University College for New Zealand Counties Association and New Zealand Institute of County Clerks staff doesn’t include a single woman.

Happily this more recent photograph picturing our Executive Leaders 2020/2021 cohort is more representative of our modern day training event participants. It shows that the future for women in local government is looking bright.

Things indeed have come a very long way. Karen Thomas, says that even when she started in her role as Chief Executive of Taituarā in 2011 there were 8 female chief executives amongst the 78 councils around the country. Currently there at 24 female chief executives across New Zealand’s 78 councils, or approximately 31 per cent. This clearly illustrates an increasing trend of women occupying senior leadership roles in local government.

The Ministry for Women notes that gender diversity in leadership roles brings a greater diversity of thought and “to get the very best leaders we need to be selecting candidates from the widest possible talent pool”. Research also shows that when women and men work together, much better economic performance results.

The 1927 photograph reflects the society of the time, in which women had very few opportunities to contribute in the public sphere, and largely worked unpaid running their households and looking after their families. What might a photograph of local government chief executives look like in 2115 – another 94 years from now? The benefits of better gender representation are clear and so we hope it won’t take so long to achieve gender equality.