Articles and Interviews

Cook Islands | 2 October 2021

Cooks leading the way for women in business

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Saturday 2 October 2021 | Written by Caleb Fotheringham

Cook Islands’ representation of women in business has grown by leaps and bounds from the time young local women needed a signature of their father or husband in order to take out loans at the banks. According to a new regional report, representation of women in business leadership in the Cook Islands well exceeds global and regional averages.

The Cook Islands leadership positions by women in all categories of business was “stand-out”, according to the report by the Pacific Private Sector Development Initiative, a programme headed by the Asian Development Bank.

Women hold a third of board seats and a quarter of board chairs in the Cook Islands, says the report, well exceeding the Pacific average where only a fifth of women hold a board seat and one in ten a board chair.

Twenty-seven per cent of chief executive officers in the Cook Islands are women, compared with 13 per cent in the region and a mere 4.4 per cent globally.

Cook Islands National Women’s Council president and economist, Vaine Wichman, says in 1981 when the Cook Islands Government signed to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women, they were unaware of the impressive strides women would make.

“The diversity of women’s presence and success in business and professional positions at all levels of society – home, village, island, region, nation and international – is recognised and celebrated. But sitting on our laurels is not a woman thing,” Wichman says.

“It will be very difficult for any of our young women professionals to imagine that once upon a time, young women keen to take out loans at all the banks here had to have a signature of their father or husband.

“Now on the back of their own qualities and earnings, women are on par with our men in investing and taking out investment loans to build businesses.”

Wichman says women have taken up the challenge to educate themselves so they can sit at professional sector and state board tables.

National Council of Women president Vaine Wichman. 18040418

“During our grandmothers’ era, not many (women) could be spared to take up education after primary and early secondary (school) for reasons of the time. So you can see the figures today are testament to the visions of our leaders.”

The regional study (Leadership Matters: Benchmarking Women in Business Leadership in the Pacific) was undertaken by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) technical assistance programme in partnership with the governments of Australia and New Zealand.

The report collects and analyses women’s business leadership data across 14 Pacific countries, establishing a baseline for women’s representation in senior business leadership—including in state-owned enterprises—and comparing these findings to global averages and the rate of women’s political leadership in the Pacific.

The report also found that the Pacific compares favourably with global averages in all categories of business leadership measured, with the Cook Islands a stand-out. Based on available data, women hold 32 per cent of board seats and 25 per cent of board chairs in the Cook Islands, well above regional and global averages.

Regionally, women on average hold 21 per cent of board seats and 11 per cent of board chairs, while globally the average falls to just 16.9 per cent and 5.3 per cent, respectively.

The Cook Islands’ campus director of the University of South Pacific (USP) and president of the Cook Islands Business and Professional Women’s Association, Debi Futter-Puati, says the report’s findings came as no surprise.

“Most of our students (at USP), for many years have been, and continue to be, women,” Futter-Puati says.

“When women juggle their lives around family, work, and community commitments they know fully how to be a successful leader for their family, business, or professional lives.”

Futter-Puati says she commends women who ably lead the way on so many fronts. She hopes that the professional women’s association for the 30 years that it has run, has played a role in women taking leadership positions.

“The last frontier for women of the Cook Islands is for more women to crash through the glass ceiling of Parliament,” and she says “the time is ripe!”

Cook Islands Tourism Industry council president, Liana Scott, says woman in the Cook Islands have always shown an entrepreneurial spirit as well as being able to juggle many roles in the workplace and home.

Over the years she’s noticed women picking up more leadership positions. Her resort, the Muri Beach Club Hotel, has women working in all the managerial roles except for maintenance and the kitchen, which she says is evidence of more women in leadership.

But Scott says there is always room for improvement.

“I have been fortunate to be brought up in a family where I was told the ‘sky is the limit, you can do anything you want to’ and I never really differentiated between a man’s job versus a woman’s, and I didn’t recognise until later that not all had the privilege of being brought up in such a household. 

“Now and then we need to look at our peers and give them the nudge or make them believe that they too can do ‘anything’ and dare I say sometimes better.”

Myra Patai, the chief executive officer at the Office of the Public Service Commissioner, says it’s great to see these positive statistics.

“But we must continue to increase the number of women in leadership and decision-making roles, because they contribute a different perspective to solutions,” Patai says.  

Principal immigration officer, Kairangi Samuela, says the report was really positive news.

Between 2012 and 2015, Samuela was a board member of the Bank of the Cook Islands which had an all-female (except one male) board membership, that also had a female CEO.

“We have definitely changed as a society in recognising the skills and attributes that women bring to the decision-making process,” Samuela says.

“In my view, seeing women leading inspires confidence and change in our community that breaks down social and traditional gender norms.”

Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer, Eve Hayden, says while it’s good the Cook Islands is doing well relative to its region, it could always do better.

“From my personal perspective, I have never been a fan of implementing quotas to generate this kind of change; it is of course always better to have the right person for the job rather than settle for someone based on gender, race or politics. 

“Women here seem to be highly motivated to succeed and this is probably reflective of the numbers in this report.”

On Thursday the Chamber of Commerce had its annual general meeting and Hayden says now just over half the board members are female, “so you could say, Chamber is leading the charge on that”.

Niki Rattle, the former speaker of parliament from 2012 to February this year, says a lot has improved with women’s representation in Parliament since she started her job as speaker.

Rattle, who has been advocating for equal representation in politics, says: “Head of ministries now is the highest number that I can remember, there are more women in business, and I’m most impressed with the younger women who are thriving in business.”

Rattle was the president of the Cook Islands National Council of Women, the Cook Islands Women’s Counselling Centre president, and is now the president for Cook Islands Family Welfare

She says more can be done, particularly in Parliament.

“I know we in the Cook Islands are way ahead of some Pacific parliaments but it is not enough until women are equally represented, and there is no good reason as why not,” Rattle says.

“We still have a long way to go in achieving fifty-fifty representation in Parliament.”

She says women are proving to be great leaders.

“It is highly obvious by the results of the report that we have the women leaders, and why not in Parliament?”

Rattle says the first past the post system was limiting and referred to other parliaments that have adopted a quota system.

Louisa Castledine, businessowner of the real fruit ice cream truck, Be Fruitful, says it’s incredible to be in a country and in an environment where women are second to none.

“We are recognised for our achievements, our opinions, and our input. I think we are privileged as women that we live in a community and country that values our voice,” Castledine says.  

“I think I am privileged as a female Cook Islander to grow up in that environment, it only nurtures even stronger women.

“I am proud that I am a Cook Islander because I know that when my daughter grows up, she will be nurtured and cared for in an environment where women are valued. I know that there are women in other countries throughout the world that don’t get that same privilege, so we are really fortunate."

In response to the report, Prime Minister Mark Brown said: “This is a launching point for our nation as it moves into the final stages of adopting our National Sustainable Development Agenda 2020+ (or NSDA2020+) where we will continue the emphasis on Turanga Memeitaki/Wellbeing for All. Our government is focused on driving policies that will reduce the gender pay gap and remove obstructions to women’s career development.”

The NSDA 2020+ is currently being finalised by the Central Policy and Planning Office (CPPO) at the Office of the Prime Minister. It will promote entrepreneurship and innovation and develop the service sector with the goal of inclusiveness and gender equality in all forms in the workplace being promoted.

Australia’s High Commissioner to the Cook Islands, HE Dr Christopher Watkins, commented that “the research reveals what many in Cook Islands know anecdotally. There is a rich vein of outstanding women business leaders here, and many of the country’s world-leading tourist ventures are led by women”.