The Director: Cover Story: Maureen Pugh

Westland District Council’s Mayor Maureen Pugh wants more women on local body boards.
And playing round with quotas for women on boards and other macro level policies won’t do the trick. “Women have to do this for themselves,” she says. “It’s important that we encourage more women to participate in local politics and seek leadership positions.”
Pugh came to the job the hard way. She didn’t have any tertiary qualifications, but like many women “I had great deal of life experience and have never stopped learning”, she says.
She got into local body governance through her involvement with school governance. The Tomorrow’s Schools programme introduced her to the hands-on reality of school board of trustee activities. “It was fantastic training ground and I still encourage parents to get involved with school boards for the same reason. Entering local government was not on my radar but when the opportunity presented itself I took it. “When life delivers opportunities we should jump [at them],” she says.
Pugh talked with The Director about why New Zealand needs more women around its local government board tables and the particular capabilities they bring to community leadership.

Why do more women need to join local body boards?
More women under the age of 50 hold tertiary qualifications than men, yet not lot more than 10 percent of board members on the Top 100 listed companies on the New Zealand stock market are women. I am not suggesting that women should be appointed to boards simply because they are women, in fact I would find that extremely patronising. But women should be given equal opportunity to compete for positions based solely on their ability to perform the task. Otherwise New Zealand is not getting the best out of the skills of half of its population. In that respect, local government is like business.

What do women bring to the board table?
We think differently from men. Our perspectives on issues come from different set of life experiences and values. Women are more likely to find compromise when confronted with perceived impasse.

So why is it difficult to attract women into local body governance?
I wish I knew. Perhaps, in part, it goes back to some evolutionary markers when men were out being hunters/gatherers and women stayed in the cave looking after the offspring and dealing to the food. Times have changed. The role of men has changed and so too must the role of women.

What have you personally done to try and solve the problem?
Offering myself as an example is my contribution to solving the problem. It is gratifying to have women want to have go at becoming elected representatives. I believe our increasing involvement will make huge difference.

Does having less women around the table make difference to your ability to perform as mayor?
Absolutely not. I have one other woman on Council this term. Previously I was the only woman amongst 10 men. But apart from the odd “fluffing of feathers” by one or two roosters, gender has nothing to do with [the board’s] performance. Performance is based on individual enthusiasm, commitment and ability to do the job, and do it well. There can be lazy people in any team, but that has nothing to do with gender and it applies to all boards.

Are the differences in the way men and women approach governance attitudinal or competency based?
Women are more conciliatory and focused on finding solutions than on winning. We need more of this style of leadership. Anyone who can manage house, budget, children, husband (and usually pets), neighbours, school and the wider family network is multi-skilled, smart and valuable contributor to any community.
Women should value their skills and step up to represent communities at local government level. If it’s fear that prevents women from taking that leap, all I can say is “feel the fear and do it anyway”. We are different from men; we think differently and respond differently. That difference should be celebrated and brought into the governance of communities and businesses.

Do men see themselves as more capable or are they simply more available?
This is probably linked to my response about cave men! In Westland we hold our meetings during the day so that our southern councillors can travel to and from the meeting in one day. With three-and-a-half hour drive each way, night meeting is out of the question. If individuals are full-time employed it is almost impossible for them to attend day meetings. That makes being councillor in Westland more accessible to the self-employed, retired or those with supplementary income.

Are men more politically or commercially motivated to serve on council boards?
Historically, the more mammoths men slew the more respect they earned in Bedrock. It’s big generalisation, but some men seem to collect directorships like trophies and end up not being capable of doing justice to any. Some have the most awesome business acumen and, as with any group of people, there is then the politics. You need tough hide to work through that sometimes. It can take quite some effort to understand the players’ motivations. Understanding individual team members makes understanding their thought processes easier. I wouldn’t say men are any better at any of this. We are all very capable. Some just need the chance to prove themselves.

Why is good local body governance so important?
Local government has more direct influence in communities than central government. Local government is responsible for the way our towns look and function. We can inspire or destroy communities. We are at the coalface of our communities with direct accountability. And individually we are much more accessible.

What are you trying to accomplish for Westland?
Westland’s population is too small to continue to absorb the ongoing costs imposed by central government. It is up to us as councillors to find other ways of supplementing our income so that we don’’t impose those increasing costs on our ratepayers. Our goal is to become world-class tourist destination by 2030 – with all that implies. Our challenge is to do things in smarter way. Sometimes that means stepping outside what has become normal practice. Watch this space.

Are you making progress?
Our council has set up group of companies with high-performing directors – of the 10, two are women – who are charged with commercially making the best of our assets. We are now starting to get some real runs on the board. Our contracting company is partnering with our property company to develop new residential development and industrial park. Our airport company has taken over management of our Hokitika and Franz Josef sites and now returns modest dividend where it was once subsidised by ratepayers to the tune of $150,000 year.
Our new property company is already starting to deliver return simply by commercialising the opportunities within our property portfolio: land-locked unformed legal road, boundary adjustments, and rationalising property are the first priorities in delivering greater returns to council, and therefore our community. This property company is also driving projects where bureaucratic organisation, like council, would have struggled. These projects will achieve long-term benefits that may not be immediately obvious.

Do you see more women coming through in other regions?
Unfortunately not.

What have you done in Westland to change things?
Obviously not enough. I’ve approached several great women in our community but local government is not for them… yet.

Are they making difference?
Every individual makes difference, simply by being there, regardless of gender.
But local government is open to everyone and I’m living proof of that. It is difficult to put yourself up in front of your community and ask them to approve of you. But it is so worth it. You

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