Impossible question time: What will it take to get NZ women into high-power roles? 10 successful Kiwi women respond

According to a recent survey New Zealand’s 'women in business' stats are not too shabby – we’re fourth in the world in fact. There’s still work to be done however, especially when it comes to women in C-suite roles...

...which is easier said than done. So what can we actually do? What actions would make a real difference? Simply put, what do we need to do to get more New Zealand women into high-powered New Zealand roles?

Natalia Albert, COO of Inspiring Stories, director TEDxWellyWomen, director Jness NZ & Australia

Yesterday somebody told me, while having a conversation about having more women in leadership and boards, “So what? You expect there to be 50% women and 50% men on boards? But women have babies, and let’s face it, that’s a handicap”.

So, what to do? How do we get more women into high power roles? 

For starters, stop using this excuse! When I bring diversity topics up, specifically focused on gender at work, I keep getting the parenting/pregnancy argument. I believe this is a cheap cop-out and it’s not true. It’s not true because, for example, for women like me that don’t want babies, yet I still feel the prejudice, unconscious biased and inconsistencies in how I am treated. And some women that do have babies, like say, Victoria Crone, have done very well. So it’s much more passive aggressive than that. It’s the everyday typical unconscious bias. And this isn’t exclusive to men – some women have it as well.  

I also think that a great way to change this unconscious bias is by the mainstream media writing more articles like these and giving women a voice. Conversations and mainstream media are our two strongest social game changers and only way to change thia unconscious bias towards women and all minority groups. 

I believe being a women in New Zealand is much better than being a women in say, Congo or Mexico, two of the countries where being a women is most dangerous. But because it’s so good here, we have gotten complacent. There is a big difference between understanding diversity and talking about diversity, and actually actioning diversity and being diverse in our thinking. It’s the difference between wanting women in leaderships and actually being empathetic towards different ways of working, thinking, acting and being.

In New Zealand we talk the talk but don’t quite walk the walk.

Rachel Brown, founder and CEO, Sustainable Business Network

As a woman who is frequently at business meetings with senior managers, I am often one of very few women in the room – and this needs to change.

We need to help emerging women leaders gain skills in leadership through courses with a mix of male and female participants to help build a culture of female leadership.

We need to challenge the existing male culture both within and outside the office, and men can help with this. We do a lot of networking at the Sustainable Business Network which involves socialising, often talking about topics primarily of interest to men. Let’s encourage men to introduce more inclusive topics of conversation and be respectful of diversity. If we stop using language that’s gender-centric we can help with this culture shift.

We need to ensure women take the main stage on workshops, conferences and interview panels to increase their visibility.

Don’t let your business get featured on the ‘Congrats! You have an all-male panel’ blog!

Flexi-time is really valuable so women can be parents and partners as well as valuable contributors to businesses. Bigger companies could take this a step further and look at workspaces that create supportive family environments, like having crèches at work. If we encouraged gender equality with paternity leave men would be able to spend more time with their kids while helping women continue their careers.

As women, let’s help each other out. How often have women told you they find female managers to be hard-nosed and unhelpful at bringing other women up? Do we have a more prevalent female tall poppy syndrome in New Zealand than we realise? Supporting women with positive female mentors is really important, as is having strong female leaders to look up to.

Suzi McAlpine, leadership coach and blogger

We need to use hard, financial data and bottom line-focused statistics in conversations about women at the top table.

Money talks. Arguments about women being equally represented on senior leadership teams as the ‘right’, moral or even ‘people-focussed’ thing to do, aren't as compelling when companies are faced with the short-term pressure of delivering profit targets. Organisations with more women at the top table perform better financially – period.

I encourage chairmen to ask themselves this: “If the evidence is this compelling and unequivocal, do I have a strategy?” And, “If not, why not? What are my reasons for not doing something about this?”

Alice Shopland, ‎founder and CEO, Angel Food

The general perception of business needs to be changed!

Rather than the stereotype of business being boring, confined, rigid and purely orientated towards making a few individuals very wealthy, I see running a business as a very creative role, and a great way to have a positive impact towards a more just world. You don’t have to know everything, or even pretend to know everything. You do have to be willing to make decisions and take responsibility for them.

Dale Clareburt, CEO, Weirdly

There’s no one magical solution. It’s going to be an “opportunity by a thousand paper cuts” approach, starting right at the beginning by creating more diversity in the role models we provide for young girls (and boys, for that matter). If you don’t have a rich and varied exposure to women in leadership positions, why would you ever aspire to run a company? We associate leadership with power, status and self-worth for boys; we need to start forming those same connections for girls. At the same time, we need to shift the way we think about the role of a leader in business.

We know women are performing brilliantly in C-suite roles. Some of that comes from more businesses being open to doing things differently – allowing and supporting those CEOs to really lead, not just follow the old traditional pathways and models. There’s a huge opportunity for us to create more diversity in business structure, model and purpose, which, in turn, requires more diversity in leadership (and I’m not just talking about gender here!).

Teach more kids that women make great leaders, teach businesses that there are different ways to do things, and all of a sudden, you’ve got a far more supportive environment. 

Jo Brosnahan, founder, Leadership NZ

We might rate well in the world, but that just says that everyone else is doing it really badly. The reality is that until women are represented at board tables and in the C-suite in proportion to our population, we are not doing well enough. And this requires leadership – from every level – from the cabinet table, the board table and from the C-suite itself. What will get us there? Employment law and parental leave that better supports young families, family-friendly work places, shorter working weeks, shared jobs and leave compatible with family needs. We need boards and CEOs to recognize that women have great leadership skills and bring unique thinking and skills to their teams, and to recruit accordingly. And we need individuals who care sufficiently to bring about the change, and to ensure that young women get the opportunities that they deserve.

I thought 30 years ago, that the future would be brighter for my own daughters and it is, a little. But the future opportunities for their daughters should be no different from that of their sons.

Jolie Hodson, CFO, Spark

Firstly, I don’t think there is any silver bullet or one answer that gets us there, but I do think there are a few things we can do as individuals and as organisations to create more opportunity to bring more women into senior executive roles.

Firstly, being prepared to sponsor others into roles, which is much more than a mentoring relationship. It’s something you both have to be vested in. The sponsor helps provide a broad perspective, constructive feedback and are prepared to put their reputation on the line to recommend you for opportunities. They do this because they know when they put you into stretch assignments or roles you will deliver on their expectations. So it’s a two way relationship. Over recent years I’ve been more aware of investing my own time in helping others to create that opportunity to be successful as I have been helped in my own career.

For organisations, its thinking about how you create flexibility in the workplace to enable your people to make choices about how they balance their family and work aspirations at important times in their career. I know for me, this was really important. I took maternity leave with both my children and while I was on maternity leave with my daughter Emma, I was promoted into a new role. To me it demonstrated the trust the organisation had in me to achieve, it enabled my career to continue to develop while recognising the importance of having time out for my family.

Justine Munro, independent director, Z Energy and director, Champions for Change

Girls and women are showing us their full potential in schools, universities, and in corporate graduate intakes (although there's still some way to go with STEM). But this talent walks right out the door of our businesses at the junior and middle-management levels. What happens? Women just don't see visible and committed leadership prepared to work with them as they build lives they love that combine work and family with flexible working models. And increasingly, we're realising that inflexibility is a problem for men as well as women, older as well as younger people. How can we all – mums, dads, daughters, sons, grandparents and individuals who want more balanced lives – have equal access and equal success in working flexibly, without repercussions for our career progression?

Our best companies are realising that to retain talent and remain relevant, they need to prepare for a future where flexibility – in when, where and how people work – is standard. Unleashing all our talent requires stopping treating people like widgets, and working with them to ensure solutions that are great for companies and individuals over the long run. Only then will we see the diversity we need in our top teams.

Laura Reitel, programme director, Lightning Lab

Increasing diversity in leadership roles, boards, and workplaces in general requires a real buy-in from the top down. Rethinking old systems like recruitment, performance management, succession planning and talent development will help more companies get there. Sometimes it’s also necessary to broaden the criteria for these roles to reflect the actual skill sets needed. It would be great to have more women supporting their peers to get them promoted internally, because we've seen time and time again that women sometimes just need someone to shoulder tap them to lead. 

Mandy Simpson, chief operating officer, NZX

I believe that having strong role models in senior roles can help women to realise that opportunities are real, are rewarding and might be worth the sacrifices. As they are developing their careers men have many role models to choose from. In most cases the majority of senior leaders in their own company will be men, and externally almost all CEOs. For women it’s not so straightforward. Being able to see one or two high profile women in senior roles is fine, but what if you find it hard to identify with those individuals? The more women we can hear from, the more likely it is that women who are deciding what is next for them will find someone that encourages and inspires them.

We have many talented women in senior roles in this country but they are often not that visible, particularly outside their own company. I’d love businesses to help their senior women be heard more.  In particular, making sure they have opportunities to represent the company on issues relevant to their role, and not just gender topics.