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We need to talk about the lack of female directors at New Zealand companies

New stats from the NZX reveal not enough women are serving as directors of Kiwi businesses, with 87 percent of the roles being held by men.

Of all the different companies listed on the NZX, a mere 13 percent had female directors. Even worse, the number is actually down from 2016, when 14 percent of companies had female directors.

The numbers are all the more appalling considering that women held 18.8 percent of the board seats on the 2016 Fortune 1000, which lists the 1,000 largest companies in the world. It also is far below that of other industrialised nations like Germany, where about 22 percent of board seats were held by women (according to stats from the Hans Böckler Foundation) prior to a law that went into effect in January requiring companies to ensure a minimum of 30 percent of board seats be held by women.

“You have to be sparing with the word ‘historic,’” Justice Minister Heiko Maas told the New York Times when the law was first passed in 2015. “But I think today we can apply it.” He also said the law was “the greatest contribution to gender equality since women got the vote”, which happened in Germany in 1918.

Credit Suisse’s 2016 report The CS Gender 3000: The Reward for Change reveals that Norway (46.7 percent), France (34 percent), and Sweden (33.6 percent) had the highest percentages of women on their boards. In the US, the 2015 Catalyst Census: Women and Men Board Directors report shows almost 20 percent (19.9 percent to be precise) of board seats were held by women at S&P 500 companies.

Even Australia is blowing the Land of the Long White Cloud out of the water when it comes to women on boards. Women held about 23.4 percent of board seats on ASX 200-listed companies in June 2016 – a nearly three-fold increase from 8.3 percent in 2009.

Translation: Aotearoa is not doing very good at all.

The lack of female directors flies in the face of another statistic. Last year’s MYOB Women in Business Survey shows that women now make up about 44 percent of small to medium business owners. As Idealog reported at the time, the number is up from 30 percent in 2012.

And the stats about the lack of female representation also come amid other bad news. A February 28 report from Statistics New Zealand revealed that mothers make almost $5 an hour less than men on average ($23.40 an hour for mothers, versus $28.30 for fathers). The Empirical evidence of the gender pay gap in New Zealand report released on March 7 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) also further emphasises that misogyny and discrimination against women is unfortunately still very much a thing in Aotearoa. There’s also the sad stat from a Human Rights Commission project released on March 8 to mark International Women’s Day, which shows that the average New Zealand woman will earn $600,000 less than a man during her lifetime.

People are speaking up, however. According to global technology association ISACA’s The Future Tech Workforce: Breaking Gender Barriers report, some of the top barriers experienced by women in tech are a lack of mentors, lack of female role models in the field, gender bias in the workplace, unequal growth opportunities compared to men, and unequal pay for the same skills.

Organisations, academics and entrepreneurs are also taking a stand. Vodafone last month 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 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. Lightning Lab ran Lightning Lab XX last year, New Zealand’s first female-founder focused accelerator programme. My Food Bag co-founder and former Telecom chief executive Theresa Gattung has also launched new venture capital fund, which aims to raise capital from women, for women entrepreneurs. The fund will make it easier for women entrepreneurs to get funding – especially important since more than 97 percent of current venture capital funding goes to men.

Check out an earlier interview with Theresa Gattung:

That’s not all that’s being done, either. For Facebook’s #SheMeansBusiness livestream – a 24-hour event featuring people from across the globe speaking about the need for equality – Lizzie Marvelly, editor of unabashed feminist outlet The Villainesse, spent much of her talk discussing the gender pay gap (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.


Speaking to Idealog for International Women’s Day last month, Xero managing director Anna Curzon had this to say about the lack of female business leaders:

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.”

Check out an earlier interview with Anna Curzon: