The Director: Lesley Whyte – Championing Women on Boards

Why set up Women on Boards?
I was doing an MBA through Massey University. I wanted to become director and was elected to Massey University Council. This kick-started my governance career. My corporate services background in risk management and management committee membership of the NZ Society of Risk Management turned out to be valuable boardroom tools.

How did you get started?

WOBNZ was co-founded by Dr Rosanne Hawarden, who is director of Computer Support Enzed, and me. We wanted to provide “tools and empowerment” to women to help them achieve their governance goals through education – formal or informal.
I became CEO and Rosanne took over as chair. It was my job to set up the organisation, develop funding and partnership programmes and talk to potential supporters. Our founding rationale was based on the fact that no one organisation existed to assist women to get into governance. Women interested in governance had nowhere to go to find out what they needed to do to achieve their goal.
Equally, there was no one to tell them that being on board indeed wasn’t for them. No organisation really provided training or networking tailored to women. Training tended to be offered during the week, lasted full day and was expensive. Networking events were over breakfast, which is usually the busiest time of the day for family.
So, we launched the concept in November 2011 and gave ourselves 12 months to test the market.

What did you want to accomplish?

We set out to promote the idea of having more women in both senior executive and governance roles. We also wanted to create affordable training programmes for women offered at times that wouldn’t dramatically impact on their work or study.
We wanted national organisation that had affordable membership fees making it accessible to all women and free networking events that were held at times which suited those who studied or juggled work and home commitments.
And finally, we wanted it to become “one-stop-shop” for women to talk about their governance career goals and what they needed to do in order to achieve these goals. We also wanted to encourage existing women directors who wanted to take on additional governance roles to be part of the organisation and become aspirational role models.
And we wanted men to participate in our organisation through membership and partnerships.

Are you succeeding?

We have achieved what we set out to accomplish in the first 12 months.
WOBNZ is now an incorporated society and established as an advocacy group. It uses research to support its promotion of increased representation of women on boards; to identify the benefits boards gain from the diversity and better gender balance.
We have recently established partnership with research company Colmar Brunton through its CEO Jacqueline Ireland.
We focus on bringing through the next generation of board-ready women by developing their existing leadership skills. We use social media forums as our communication pipeline. Traditional letter correspondence is not part of our communication regime.
Women network differently from men. Many of our members balance working full time with running or managing the house and family. Our branch networking events are at times which better fit with their diaries.

Why set up the Gender Diversity Summit?

The event is designed to bring business women together, particularly future directors and the C-suite set. We want them to have say in what gender diversity leadership looks like. The summit, which will happen every year, is an important opportunity for women business leaders, present and future, to identify what is needed for women to be treated as boardroom equals.
We have come some way recently, but the diversity tsunami that is happening overseas is leaving New Zealand behind. It was good to hear investment managers at recent risk management conference suggesting they will not invest in companies that don’t have diversity policies.

Has the experience of setting up WOBNZ changed your thinking on the need for more women on boards?

Yes, in one area. There are groups of well-established directors out there promoting gender diversification at board level. They are talking about what the future looks like, establishing mentoring and programmes. But the women invited to attend their programmes appear to be women who have already achieved boardroom status. Our members are telling us they haven’t been part of any consultation on what the future looks like. It may be that what they want and what is being promoted is the same, but they want their say in an open forum.
We think the Gender Diversity Summit will provide some answers and we’ll use the outcomes to supplement our strategy. That’s why we called it “summit”, rather than simply Gender Diversity Week.

What are the greatest stumbling blocks to future progress – and what has emerged as the most promising tangible change indicators?

New Zealand needs to both focus on change and on delivering that change sustainably to remain globally competitive. We pushed strongly to have the NZX implement its proposed rule change on greater female board representation on listed companies. We are now working with industries to see how we can assist with championing change in those industries.

What is governance missing out on as consequence of its resistance to change?

Research shows that gender diversity at the board level improves board functioning and decision making. It also encourages independent thinking that serves as check on management prerogatives. We are missing out not only on gender diverse but also age diverse boards.
Gender diversity is not ‘now’ issue. Drawing from the existing small pool of women and stretching them across more boards to create greater diversity now doesn’t really address the future.
We realise change won’t happen overnight, but we need to start with the future to effect greater change through our universities and secondary schools. This is why WOBNZ is launching 2013 scholarship programme (www.wob.org.nz. We need more organisations to walk the talk with us by becoming partners in this programme. We need more partners to assist with funding and to become part of the development to create pipeline of women ready and prepared to sit on more boards in future.

Where to now for Lesley Whyte?

I’d like to be champion of change. WOBNZ is up and running and will be around for long time to come. I’d like another directorship of course. Governance is my career now.

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