Face To Face: Wanted: Women in high places

Frustration at the ongoing dearth of women at the helm of New Zealand businesses energises ASB CEO Barbara Chapman. Together with drive for simplicity and innovation these are the characteristics of woman whose own remarkable career has seen her dovetail an early start in HR and marketing into senior roles in the financial services sector.
Barbara Chapman ping-ponged back to ASB and New Zealand in April last year after five year secondment with parent company Commonwealth Bank of Australia where she was its Sydney-based group executive, HR and group services.
She’s now ASB Bank’s chief executive and MD, and non executive director of Sovereign Assurance Company’s parent, ASB Group (Life). Albeit now on higher notch, she’s returning to familiar hunting ground. Before heading off to Sydney, Chapman had worked for 12 years as senior executive at ASB specialising in marketing, human resources and retail banking, and then as MD of Sovereign.
Just shy of 18 months back on home turf, Chapman remains concerned about the dearth of women in high places. The majority of the NZX 100 companies have no female directors. Women currently hold about nine percent of private sector directorships in New Zealand and 21 percent of management positions reporting directly to the CEO.
“It wasn’t too long ago that we had female prime minister and governor general,” she notes. “Theresa Gattung, Ann Sherry and Rosemary Howard were heading up Telecom, Westpac and TelstraClear. There were so many high-powered female role models in business and in government. And when you look around now it’s not like that anymore.”
Chapman reckons the reasons why we’ve slipped back are several and interrelated. For starters, we simply haven’t been very good at growing female talent in business. “So now, when you look at talent pipelines there aren’t really that many women at the level below the CEO.”
Instead of keeping up momentum gained from an era in which female leaders loomed large, we’ve squandered time working on the metrics of why this should be good idea in the first place.
“There’s been huge amount of justifying,” she says. “You can trot out any number of figures… any number of reports.”
(She quoted in recent speech Goldman Sachs report that concluded New Zealand’s economic output could rise by 10 percent if women’s labour and talent were fully tapped.)
“All the big consulting firms have wealth of data as to why it’s good idea,” she says. “So let’s park that. We haven’t translated the idea into action and outcomes, and that’s the piece that needs to happen. We need to put more energy into that part.”
Not surprisingly, then, Chapman welcomes recent move by stock exchange regulator NZX requiring publicly listed companies to disclose in their annual reports the gender composition of their board and senior management teams. The new rule, which kicks in on December 31 this year, will provide the “huge catalyst” necessary to propel us in the right direction, she says. Listed companies must also provide information on their diversity policies and share how they stack up against them.
She draws encouragement from similar moves across the Tasman where the ASX put pressure on large Australian companies through new corporate governance guidelines on diversity.
Over in Australia, Chapman saw first-hand how such measures galvanised boards and CEOs to hike their performance around diversity. “And it’s paid dividends,” she says. “There’s clear evidence that it’s bringing tangible results and that diversity reporting has helped boost the number of women in both management and governance roles.”
According to law firm Chapman Tripp, within 18 months of the ASX’s rule changes there was 50 percent increase in the number of women directors: although it noted this “dramatic rise may be explained in part by the federal government’s threat to impose quotas unless gender diversity on Australian boards improved”.
The threat of strong-arm tactics aside, Chapman says she has sense that there’s been “real appetite” in Australia to get more women into senior business roles.
“The economy there has been growing very strongly and why wouldn’t you look at all your pools of talent as you’re going into growth phase? So there’s probably been quite business imperative to do it as well.”
Does she agree with recent comment by Fahrenheit Wellness Fund’s Bridget Liddell that many New Zealand CEOs have come to see gender diversity as “distraction” from hard-core business imperatives?
Certainly, Chapman believes current market difficulties are focusing business minds on how to make their own operations successful: which leaves less room to look at how we can make things better overall.
“I hate the term survival mode because that’s too stark but, certainly, it hasn’t been easy and when that’s the case, I’m not sure whether gender diversity is distraction but it’s that you just focus on what you have to do to get through the difficult times.”
Whatever the language applied to the problem, Chapman reckons we’ve moved beyond the stage where individual CEOs or boards can spark wide-scale effective change through positive initiatives at single organisations.
“That hasn’t worked,” she says. “So something has to shift and I think the NZX approach will bring about that change.”
All of which raises the question of how Chapman herself has managed to defy the odds and rise to the top. She says she’s been lucky to have had people who have supported her career and opened up possibilities for her along the way. Chief among these would be Ralph Norris who, when he was CEO of ASB and then CBA, spotted enough talent in Chapman to champion her move over the Tasman and subsequently back again.
“It’s interesting when you look at someone like Ralph,” says Chapman. “He’s given Vanessa Stoddart [now Air New Zealand’s group GM people and technical operations] an opportunity at the airline. He’s been CEO who’s completely balanced and prepared to choose his people on their abilities. There haven’t been that many people like Ralph Norris so I’ve been lucky.
“Similarly,” she says, “Hugh Burrett, the CEO here after Ralph, gave me an opportunity to go and work as the CEO of Sovereign. That was real boundary jump for me: it was different industry and role as CEO.
“And way, way back in my career I had an opportunity to move from an HR role into marketing. They are completely different disciplines and somebody, man to whom I will always be grateful, took that risk and gave me that opportunity. It doesn’t happen without people believing in you and giving you the chance to do it. And I’ve had those people so I’ve been fortunate.”
Which begs the question of what, modesty aside, these supporters may have been seeing in Chapman.
“I guess if I had to use words about myself, I’d say I’m pretty focused and very driven. And I think it’s those things that have probably helped my performance in my role,” says Chapman.
“As child, I was never sports mad. My sense of competitive spirit comes from being able to achieve with what I’m doing. So at school that was around academic things and in the business world it’s around the job that I’m doing. I’ve always been like that.”
Such competitive spirit saw Chapman crowned as the inaugural winner of the TVNZ/Marketing Magazine Marketer of the Year award in 1997, prove an insightful judge in later years on similar selection panels of her peers and be inducted into the NZ Marketing Hall of Fame.
She says her years spent immersed in the “positive energy” of marketers’ creative conversations – generating ideas, throwing them out and starting again – has probably honed lot of her thinking and how she goes about making decisions.
“One of my close friends said she and I are the perfect pair. I’ll have 100 ideas of which 99 will be dreadful and

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