Xero's Anna Curzon on women in business, feminism and the fight for equality

For International Women's Day and amid a flurry of reports showing a clear bias against women in New Zealand workplaces, digital editor Ben Mack chats with Xero managing director Anna Curzon.

Misogyny and discrimination against women is unfortunately still very much a thing in Aotearoa, if the Empirical evidence of the gender pay gap in New Zealand report released on Tuesday by the Ministry for Women (which revealed that the main reason women continuing to be paid less than men for the same work was due to “unexplained” factors) is any indication. There's also the sad stat from Grant Thornton's Women in Business: New perspectives on risk and reward report, in which the Land of the Long White Cloud was ranked 28th out of the 36 countries surveyed, with only about 20 percent of businesses led by women. And overall, the average New Zealand woman will earn $600,000 less than a man during her lifetime, according to a Human Rights Commission project released on Wednesday to mark International Women's Day.

Yet awareness is increasing. Vodafone on Wednesday announced its Vodafone ReConnect programme, designed to attract talented women who have left the workplace for an extended period of time who would like to return to work on a full-time or flexible basis. University of Sydney associate professor Rae Cooper also said on Wednesday that despite decades of talk, women’s careers are still hampered by glass ceilings, glass walls that segregate men and women into gender determined roles and “sticky floors” that confine women to dead-end jobs.

Then there’s Facebook’s #SheMeansBusiness livestream, a 24-hour event featuring people from across the globe speaking about the need for equality. The worldwide event kicked off in Aotearoa with a talk by Lizzie Marvelly, editor of The Villainesse. Much of her talk was devoted to women in business and the fact women in New Zealand are paid only about 88 cents for every dollar a man makes for the same work (and even less for Māori and Pasifika women), and that there’s only one female CEO of an NZX-listed company (Kate McKenzie of Chorus). Her talk also featured an appearance by Eat My Lunch co-founder Lisa King, who shared her story of being a woman in business and the challenges she’s faced and successes she's had.

Another woman in business who has seen her fair share of challenges and successes is Anna Curzon. The managing director of Xero – considered one of New Zealand’s biggest startup success stories – she took some time out of her busy schedule to talk about her career, ways to promote more equality in the workplace, and share advice for women in business or thinking of a career in business.

Check out an earlier interview with Anna Curzon:

Idealog: What’s been the toughest challenge you’ve faced as a woman in business, and as a woman in an executive role at a major international business?

Anna Curzon: At Xero, I lead a group of people that operate across teams and timezones, and as an international executive, I’ve had to get my head around the fact that I’m helping to run this business 24/7. It became essential for me to be able to design and orientate my day and night in a way that uses my time efficiently, and ensures that I have the energy I need to for things that are super important outside of work – like my family (I am a mother and partner) and running (there’s nothing better than running out your day by pounding the pavement!).

There’s only one female CEO of an NZX-listed company, and only 14 percent of directors of NZX-listed companies are women. Why do you think this is, and what can we do to promote greater equality in our businesses?

It’s shocking to think that, until just a few weeks ago, there wasn’t a single female CEO in the NZX50 (Kate McKenzie started as CEO of Chorus took up her role on February 20).

It is an indictment and it isn’t good enough. We need to address why this happening and rather than just talk about it, make change. There is more than enough evidence and research available to show that diversity in leadership teams and boards drive better outcomes and performance of the business. In fact, it is negligent if the boards and management of NZX-listed companies do not have a plan to address diversity on their teams.

In my experience, change is CEO-led. They set examples in the decisions they make every day. Diversity can’t just be a policy written on a document stowed away in a folder somewhere, and dusted off when the next Diversity Awards come around. A focus on diversity needs to filter down through the business from the top down, so that it’s palpable within the culture of the company.

The most important thing, yet possibly the hardest to address, is everyday unconscious bias in those making decisions within a business. Often people don’t even realise it’s happening, but those that do need to keep on noticing it and confront it. It’s important to remember though, that in most cases there isn’t a direct intent to discriminate. Sometimes being called out on it is enough to wake someone from their unconscious bias; other times, it’s not. But keep on pointing out when diverse thinking is not being respected, because people and businesses cannot continue operating in this way. It’s bad business!

Another way to promote greater equality is for people in the business to focus on building a pipeline of talent within their team. Once you’ve identified someone with talent, ambition, and promise, build them and train with opportunities to grow beyond their role and into something more senior. The statistics for the number of women in senior executive roles is terrible. We need to build up, support, and encourage people with potential in business to build out that pipeline. Of course, we also need to fight against some of the natural and unconscious biases that occur when recruiters go into the selection process.

In the end, diversity within a business allows for different perspectives and vigorous decision-making, effective risk management, and higher achievements by, and within, the company.

At the same time, the gender pay gap is almost 12 percent - and quite a lot more for Māori women, Pasifika women, and for certain sectors and types of jobs. What should we be doing to address this?

Again, any organisation that doesn’t commit to equal pay will have a dark mark against their name. I am absolutely confident that there will come a time when we’ll look back on history and wonder what people and businesses were thinking. I’m proud to be with a company that is an equal pay organisation.

What has been the most rewarding part of your job/career?
What I love is that there is a big audacious purpose and intent behind what we do at Xero. There aren’t many organisations that have the audacity and passion to go out there and attempt to change not just an industry, but rewire entire economies for the greater good. I love working with amazing people every day who share this intent.

Anna Curzon on speaking on stage at Xerocon 2016.

What do you see as the future of the fight for equality in Aotearoa? Do you think things are getting better or worse? Why?

Anybody working in business (an owner, leader, advisor, or member of staff) needs to stop rolling their eyes about this topic, and instead realise that diversity is a business issue. It has a huge impact on the health and wealth of our economy in New Zealand. If it makes it easier, think about diversity as a key way to grow GDP.  But know that all businesses in New Zealand need to be better at reflecting the customers and communities they serve, because all the evidence says this will lead to better business outcomes.

What advice do you have for women in business or female entrepreneurs?

Look to key role models and leaders – both men and women – who recognise the diversity ideals that a business should have. Reach out to them, find ways to gain their support, and turn them into your mentor, your coach or your sponsor. On days when you need some advice or encouragement, their words will lift you and help you gain perspective on the bigger picture.

What advice do you have for young women thinking of a career in business or as an entrepreneur?

You are enough. Back yourself and your decisions, and be really clear about your intent (if you’re not.  Surround yourself with people who exude good energy and advice to bolster your reserves when you’re feeling down - or when you’re feeling particularly inspired!

What does the word “feminism” mean to you? Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes I do. I know there are negative connotations about that word, but I absolutely believe that women should be treated fairly and equally. That is not a complicated concept to grasp, and it astounds me that anyone would think otherwise in this day and age. This is a human rights issue.