Opinion: Women in Local Government in NZ – Progress towards gender balance?

Publish Date : 13 Apr 2021

Dr Cathy Casey looks at the number of women elected to local government in Auckland and across New Zealand since the 2019 election to see if women are making any progress towards gender balance.


The day after the 1893 election – the first in which women in New Zealand could vote – Elizabeth Yates struck a blow for the rights of women in New Zealand when she was elected as Mayor of Onehunga Borough Council. In so doing she became the first woman mayor in the British Empire.

However, the long corridor of mayoral portraits in the Auckland Town Hall is very much an old boys' club. Since 1871, there have been 38 mayors of Auckland city. Only two were women – Dame Catherine Tizard and Christine Fletcher.

Opinion: Women in Local Government in NZ – Progress towards gender balance?

The same is unfortunately true across the country today. While there have been several famous women in mayoral robes, like Georgina Beyer, the former Mayor of Carterton, there are currently only 18 female mayors elected to New Zealand’s 67 District, City and Unitary Councils (27 per cent).

In our 12 city councils, women fare better. Five of our 12 cities (42 per cent) have a woman at the helm – Lianne Dalziel in Christchurch and Rachel Reese in Nelson were joined at the 2019 election by Paula Southgate in Hamilton, Kirsten Wise in Napier and Anita Baker in Porirua.

Since the election, there has been little change in the gender balance of mayors of district councils. Thirteen of our 54 district council mayors are women (24 per cent).

The eleven regional councils in New Zealand vote in their own chair. Two of the eleven now have a woman in the chairing role (18 per cent). There were no women in regional council chairs last term. The low number is not because women are not getting elected - 40 of our 127 regional councillors are women (31 per cent) - it might simply be a case of the old boys’ network in action. Boys voting for boys?

The two current women chairs are Jenny Hughey at Environment Canterbury and Rachel Keedwell at Horizons Regional Council.


At the 2019 election, 339 women were elected - an increase of 57 women from 2016.  This is only a six per cent increase.  Women now represent just 37 per cent of all elected councillors.

So how is Auckland going by comparison?

At the 2019 election, the public of Auckland elected nine women as ward councillors out of 20 (45 per cent), up from seven last term (35 per cent). This is an improvement but still less than the current gender balance in the New Zealand Parliament, which now has 57 women out of its 120 MPs (48 per cent). Auckland Council is now 27th out of 78 in the New Zealand councillor gender stakes, up 8 places from the last election.

Women in Local Government in NZ – Progress towards gender balance? 2
The nine women councillors elected in Auckland Council's 2019 election. L to R: Desley Simpson; Angela Dalton; Linda Cooper; Dr Cathy Casey; Tracy Mulholland; Pippa Coom; Josephine Bartley; Sharon Stewart; Christine Fletcher

But really, is 45 per cent women elected to our biggest council the best we can do?

I decided to investigate whether any other councils are more evenly balanced in the gender stakes. Sadly, I found only 12 of New Zealand’s 78 councils have 50 per cent women or more.

Hearty congratulations to Tararua District Council which has 7 out of 9 (78 per cent) female council members. You now have the title 'NZ’s Most Gender-Balanced Council'.

Councils with the highest female representation

1.      Tararua District Council


(7 out of 9)

2.      Wellington City Council


(11 out of 15)

3.      Wairoa District Council


(4 out of 7)

4.      Napier City Council


(7 out of 13)

5.      Nelson City Council


(7 out of 13)

6.      Hastings District Council


(8 out of 15)

7.      South Wairarapa District Council


(5 out of 10)

8.      Tasman District Council


(7 out of 14)

9.      Waikato District Council


(7 out of 14)

10.  Gisborne District Council


(7 out of 14)

11.  Canterbury Regional Council


(7 out of 14)

12.  Otago Regional Council


(6 out of 12)

So if that is the best New Zealand can do – and it is not great – I dreaded to look at the worst.

At the last election, there was one council in New Zealand with no women, the seven-member West Coast Regional Council.  They now have two women elected (29 per cent) so a little progress is being made on the West Coast.  While there are no councils without elected women, it is disappointing to note that there is still one council with only one woman - Hawkes Bay Regional Council (11 per cent).

Southland Regional Council had only one woman before the last election (7 per cent) they have now gone up to two (31 per cent). If they elect women at the same rate, they will reach 50 per cent around 2031.

Councils with the lowest female representation

Hawke's Bay Regional Council


(1 out of 9)

Waipā District Council


(2 out of 14)

Southland Regional Council


(2 out of 12)

Taranaki Regional Council


(2 out of 11)

Timaru District Council


(2 out of 10)

Bay Of Plenty Regional Council


(3 out of 14)

Central Hawke's Bay District Council


(2 out of 9)

Thames-Coromandel District Council


(2 out of 9)

Grey District Council


(2 out of 9)

South Taranaki District Council


(3 out of 13)

Ōtorohanga District Council


(2 out of 8)

Gore District Council


(3 out of 12)

Ruapehu District Council


(3 out of 12)

There is hope for the future. Research shows that women have tended to be elected slightly more than men when they stand for election and there is a trend towards a gradual increase in the number of female candidates.  Unfortunately, the vast bulk of local body candidates in New Zealand are men.

Click here to see data from councils across New Zealand [PDF]

Local board members

If there is real hope for improvement in gender balance for women in local government, it is in local board land. The amalgamated Auckland Council has 21 local boards.

At the 2019 election, the public elected 78 women to the 149 local board positions in Auckland (52 per cent), up from 71 (48 per cent).

Of the 21 local boards, currently nine have appointed women chairs (43 per cent). This is due to rise to 12 (57 per cent) on 28 April 2021 as several boards are due to swap chairs halfway through the term, which is equal to the number of women chairs in 2016. 

The growing number of women being elected to local boards is obviously influencing the decisions about the appointment of chairs. And not before time. 

Changing the guard?

Kate Sheppard would be horrified to learn that women in New Zealand - the country that first gave women the vote - are still grossly underrepresented in the ranks of elected councillors in local government and very few hold leadership roles.

Having more women in decision-making is vital if councils are to reflect the population they serve and be truly representative.

Perhaps women in local government can be more proactive in identifying and mentoring other women who can go on to nominate and be elected. Maybe it is time to develop our own old girl’s network to ease women’s route into elected office. Men have been doing it for years.

Dr Cathy Casey represents the Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa ward of Auckland Council.

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