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Business and Professional Women New Zealand

1939 –

This essay written by Beryl Hughes was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

1939 –1993

The New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs (NZFBPW) was formed to encourage and assist business and professional women joining the clubs—and beyond them New Zealand women in general—to take an active role in public life and in community affairs. It worked for higher standards in business and the professions, and for equal opportunities and status for women.

In May 1992 there were 43 clubs in the federation, and almost 1800 members, drawn from all age groups and from a considerable range of occupations; any woman could belong, but 75 percent of a club's membership had to be women in business or the professions. Since Māori women were under-represented in these fields, few joined the organisation. Single women heavily outnumbered married women in the early days, but by 1993 this was no longer the case.

Clubs for business and professional women, known as Round Table Clubs, were established throughout the country during the 1930s on the initiative of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). The Wellington club was the first, founded in 1932 as a result of the work of Jean Stevenson, national secretary of the YWCA, and of Leila Bridgeman, general secretary of the YWCA of Wellington. The International Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs (IFBPW), established in 1930 with headquarters in Geneva, encouraged the scattered clubs to form a New Zealand federation. This was accomplished in 1939 at a conference in Wellington, attended by delegates from clubs in Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Hamilton, New Plymouth, Timaru, Wellington and Whangarei. After the conference, the clubs changed their name to Business and Professional Women's Clubs. The federation, which had a financial membership of 214, then affiliated to the IFBPW; Margery Toulson, first president of NZFBPW, was appointed a vice-president of the international federation.

Membership of NZFBPW was opened in 1946 to any club for business and professional women which had aims in accordance with the objectives of the federation, and carried out a suitable programme. This marked an important constitutional change: clubs not affiliated to the YWCA could now join, although relations between the federation and the YWCA remained cordial.

From the beginning, NZFBPW members focused on the status of women. They were conscious of the need to encourage women to stand for Parliament and other public bodies, where they were seriously under-represented. A watch committee was appointed in 1943 to alert members to parliamentary legislation affecting women.

The federation had a long commitment to the principle of equal pay, allying itself from 1945 with the PSA's campaign and corresponding with government on this issue for some years. In 1956, NZFBPW representatives attended a meeting called by the PSA of all organisations interested in equal pay; the outcome was the formation of the Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity (CEPO) the following year, with Challis Hooper (federation president 1952–56), as president. Although the Government Service Equal Pay Act was passed in 1960, changes in the public service were slow and the private sector did not voluntarily adopt the principle of equal pay.

In 1964 a study conference entitled 'Women's Contribution in a Changing Society', jointly organised by Wellington BPW and the Wellington branch of the Federation of University Women, resulted in the formation of the Joint Committee on Women and Employment. The committee in turn successfully lobbied for the establishment in 1967 of the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women (NACEW), attached to the Department of Labour and Employment. Ria McBride (federation president 1973-75) became a member of NACEW.

Another NZFBPW member, Rita King, was president of CEPO, 1966–72, and the federation made submissions to the 1971 commission of inquiry on the implementation of equal pay. When the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1972, King was present on the floor of the House—the first woman, not an MP, to be accorded this privilege. CEPO went into recess in 1977, but was reconvened in 1987 when the Equal Pay Act proved inadequate. NZFBPW members played key roles in the pay equity campaign, their organisation giving them status and networking contacts among women's groups.

Two women with candles

Members of the Auckland Business and Professional Women’s Club opening the 1978 business year with a candle-lighting ceremony on International Night linking them with other club members world-wide. Credit: New Zealand Herald.

In 1990, Clare Nixon and Noeline Matthews presented the federation's generally supportive submission on the Employment Equity Bill. It was passed by the Labour government, but repealed by the incoming National government later in 1990. Anne Knowles, vice-president of the federation, with responsibility for the status of women, was then appointed to chair the working party on equity in employment. The federation presented a submission, and continued to monitor the issue of pay equity. NZFBPW also held carefully planned annual conferences. Conference was the governing body, Council the administrative body, while an executive committee conducted the federation's business in accordance with policy laid down by Conference. Each club paid the federation an annual levy, based on membership.

The federation had important links with other bodies, including formal affiliations with the Young Women’s Christian Association, National Council of Women of New Zealand (NCWNZ), New Zealand United Nations Association and Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women's Association. Its IFBPW membership linked it with women's movements throughout the world and with the international federation's work in the United Nations. Each February, NZFBPW members took part in the candle-lighting ceremony, a symbol of international friendship used by sister clubs all over the world. These international contacts often proved invaluable at a personal level for members travelling overseas.

The federation also presented many submissions to parliament, for example on jury service, matrimonial property, abortion, nuclear power and maternity leave. Its outstanding report to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Women's Rights (1975) was quoted in the final report. The number of clubs and members did not always increase as quickly as the federation would like, and occasionally some clubs closed. But Daisy Pullar, federation president 1961–63, summed up its work in words that were still relevant in 1993: 'The development of our organisation has perhaps not been spectacular but it has been steady, solid and substantial.' [1] The only organisation of its kind in New Zealand, NZFBPW worked continuously for improved conditions of employment and wider opportunities for women from 1939 to 1993.

Beryl Hughes

1994 – 2018

The New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women Inc. changed its name to Business and Professional Women New Zealand Inc. (BPW NZ) in 2000.  From 1994, BPW NZ continued to take an active role in advocating not only for women in business and the professions but for all women, especially those unable to speak for themselves. It provided mentoring and training for women through the Keys to Achievement programmes managed within the clubs, leading to Bronze, Silver and Gold Keys, with those holding Gold Keys known as Fellows of BPW.   

With most women working longer hours, paid and unpaid, facing a working week extending into the weekend, and becoming more active in sports (their own or family activities) or their own professional and business organisations, they had less time for the collective work undertaken by NGOs. This led to fewer women joining, and the way members interacted with each other changed. Like similar organisations, BPW had to restructure. Loss of membership contributed to loss of operating capital.

However, the instigation of individual membership led to a strong body of individual members who could participate in all activities, hold national office, present resolutions at Conference, and have voting rights. The Young BPW group for women aged 35 or under was also a strong force, conveying the concerns of younger women. BPW NZ’s website carried essential information that continued to attract new members. Email allowed every member to receive the monthly newsletter and other information direct from the executive.

The organisation took a leading role in lobbying, presenting submissions to parliamentary select committees, and responding to discussion papers. The annual general meeting passed policy resolutions on current issues, partly to provide the platform for these responses, but also to use in submitting remits to NCWNZ, with which it maintained a close relationship. Many BPW resolutions appeared in NCWNZ Policy. The membership was informed and educated through regional meetings and leadership forums. BPW NZ also campaigned to get 20 percent of its members appointed as JPs.

A wide range of core women’sissues, many of them longstanding, were lobbied on over this period. They included pay equity (still), paid parental leave, flexible working hours, matrimonial property, same sex marriage, rights and services for women with disabilities, recognising women’s unpaid work, family violence, and getting more women on boards. BPW NZ also supported the decriminalisation of prostitution. Internationally relevant issues included the Rio Declaration: Agenda 21 – Declaration on Environment and Development, sexual slavery and trafficking, forced and underage marriage, and female genital mutilation.

Working with NCWNZ, BPW NZ contributed to periodic reports to committees monitoring compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and other United Nations (UN) conventions. In partnership with UN Women, it also promoted and supported the Global Compact Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEP). In New Zealand, as well as becoming a member of the Pay Equity Coalition, it continued to support and work with Graduate Women, Rural Women, the Equal Opportunities Trust, New Horizons for Women Trust, Maori Women’s Welfare League, Pacific Women’s Watch (NZ), Shakti, and the Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women’s Association.

All clubs contributed through workshops to a 1996 report, ‘Platform for Action—A Response by BPW NZ to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs’.  A club project led to research and workshops which resulted in a 2003 booklet, Resettlement Issues for Refugee and Migrant Women; this was distributed to government departments and agencies, and cited with approval by the Race Relations Conciliator. Members were surveyed for a project on Bullying in the Workplace; other club projects or supported international projects included Legal Literacy: Access to Justice for Women, and Bridging the Gap—Women for Water: Water for Women, both of which extended to the Asia-Pacific Region.

Booklet cover

The 2003 booklet by the New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs Resettlement Issues for Refugee and Migrant Women

A partnership with BPW Nepal focused on paying international fees, funding literacy programmes and providing warm clothing for preschoolers at day-care centres managed by BPW Nepal clubs. BPW NZ contributed to Project 5-O in La Paz, Mexico, which involved funding the building to train primary care nurses, and then sponsoring several trainees. Funds were also raised for BPW Sri Lanka, to put towards building houses for women following a tsunami, and for BPW Nepal, following the major earthquake there in 2015.

In the international organisation, BPW NZ maintained a strong voice, with many of its resolutions becoming international policy. Its members took part in international meetings and congresses, and held international office. [2] Several members served as members of International task forces, contributing to valuable programmes internationally. BPW NZ became renowned in BPW International circles for ‘punching beyond our weight’, winning first prize for advocacy at every triennial international congress since 2008. It regularly sent a delegation to the UN’s CEDAW meetings, with active participation and presentations that made it noticed on the world stage and a delegation to the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York, being active in parallel and side events. In 2018, as BPW NZ prepared to celebrate its eightieth anniversary in 2019, the spirit of the organisation remained as strong as ever.

Anita Devcich and Dianne Glenn [3]


[1] The First Twenty-five Years, 1963, p. 9.

[2] Over the past 25 years BPW NZ members have held the international positions of Executive Officer, Executive Treasurer, Co-ordinator for the Asia-Pacific Region, Co-ordinator for the Oceania sub-region (four members), Chair of the Health Committee, and Executive Assistant to the President, as well as undertaking Parliamentary roles at the International Congresses.

[3] Both past presidents of BPW NZ, Dianne Glenn also a Life Member.

Unpublished sources

Bethel, Audrey, 'The Wellington Business and Professional Women's Club: The First Twenty-one Years, 1932–1953', ATL

New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs records, 1934–, ATL

Published sources

BPW NZ, History of Business and Professional Women New Zealand, 1939–2019, forthcoming

NZFBP, History of the New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, NZFBPW, Auckland, 1984

Stevenson, Jean, 'Business and Professional Women's Round Table Clubs—Their Opportunities and Possibilities', The New Zealand Girl, 12 April 1938, p. 12

NZFBPW, The First Twenty-five Years 1939–1964: Historical Handbook of the New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, NZFBPW, Wellington, 1963