INTOUCH : Where are the women leaders?

After decades of effort, it seems women are still trying to find their place at the boardroom table – despite growing evidence about the benefits of board diversity.
Of New Zealand’s top 100 NZX companies, 60 have no women on their boards at all and an already dismal representation rate risks dropping even lower, says EEO commissioner Judy McGregor.
“New Zealand is at crossroads in women’s leadership. Despite huge investment in women’s education and the large number of women who are qualified and willing to assume governance positions, New Zealand is slipping backwards in terms of the number of women on corporate boards – and there’s real risk of regression in the public sector as well.”
New Zealand is not alone in its dearth of female directors and as visiting UK leadership expert Susan Vinnicombe makes clear, it’s got nothing to do with lack of ambition or talent.
“The key reason for there being not enough women on boards is bias in the selection process – it’s closed, unfair and women are systematically overlooked. The appointment process is flawed one that is very dependent on personal referral.”
Director of the International Centre for Women Leaders at Cranfield University, Vinnicombe has bunch of statistics showing women’s progress in the leadership stakes is, at best, glacial.
Over the past decade, the percentage of directors on FTSE 100 boards in the UK, for instance, has crept from seven percent to 12 percent. And, says Vinnicombe, the recession is making it even tougher for women to get look in.
“Boards are now saying they want mainline CEO experience which narrows access for women even further – yet I think the business case gets stronger and stronger.”
There’s the talent argument.
“Why would you ignore half your talent – especially given that in most countries girls outperform boys at every education level. So if human capital is the argument, then you should have more women leaders.”
Then there’s the market argument – most consumer decisions are made by women so it makes sense to have more of them in business decision-making roles. Plus research shows companies perform better when they have more diverse leadership team.
Vinnicombe has also identified five ‘myths’ about women leaders that hold them back. One is that women aren’t interested in leadership – an assertion not supported by research. The second is that women don’t have the traits and characteristics of leaders. In reality, they tend to adopt management style that allows them to fit the culture, says Vinnicombe.
“That means they play down their natural leadership style, which is very sad. In terms of how women perform on boards, while it’s difficult for them to get those roles, they are very successful when they do get in.”
Myth three is that women don’t have the right experience. Again this is unsupported by evidence, with studies suggesting they have better educational qualifications and more diverse experience across multiple sectors – trait now valued at board level. Myth four is that women don’t take risks and are consequently bad for business – whereas there are number of indicators in research demonstrating women on boards are good both for corporate governance and business. The fact that many women who do drop out of corporate roles go on to become successful entrepreneurs suggests they have traits companies absolutely need in their management and governance teams.
And myth five is that women abandon leadership roles to have families.
“If you really look at the research, you find that women who leave do so because they can’t get the right opportunities. Which is not to say that work-life balance is not part of that – but the research doesn’t indicate that women want to stay at home fulltime.”
One country where women do have high rate of board participation is Norway where board diversity is mandated – but equality is much more embedded in the Scandinavian culture, says Vinnicombe, and she doesn’t generally favour using quota system to boost numbers.
Whether that’s the track to go down in New Zealand will be one idea undergoing serious scrutiny over the next six months with the launch of new initiative by the EEO Trust and the Human Rights Commission. Called “A Place At The Table”, it was kicked off last month with summit of 50 private and public sector directors and leaders including Genesis director Brian Corban, KiwiRail deputy chair Paula Rebstock and TelstraClear head Allan Freeth.
Ideas mooted including target setting for board diversity, men championing gender diversity, chairs using their influence to create change and creating pathways to funnel the sizable number of women on not-for-profit and government boards into private sector governance.
Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick described the initiative as “a vital first step to reinvigorating the discussion, forging new alliances and finding innovative solutions”.

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