Leadership: Men leading badly

There is leadership issue out there which, while some may consider me less than qualified to address, is nevertheless dear to my heart. Women! There simply aren’t enough of them. Well, not on the boards of our major companies anyhow.
The latest addition to living library of literature and research on how few women get to draw up chair at our biggest board tables simply confirms what most of us men know. We’re not giving up our leadership without fight, or maybe directive to do so.
New Zealand is, according to international talent management company Korn/Ferry (see page 60), one of the world’s success stories when it comes to keeping women out of the boardroom. Our defence-centric rugby DNA may have something to do with it.
For while there it looked like women might just be getting the upper-hand. Unsatisfied with being the first to get the vote in western democracy 100 or so years ago, they eventually went on to snatch all the perk jobs – Prime Minister, Governor General, Chief Justice, CEO of Telecom – you name it.
But, as veteran feminist activist and writer Gloria Steinem recently told Time magazine: the idea put about that the fight for women’s rights is over is simply clever (male) “way of stopping progress”.
It doesn’t look, however, like Kiwi male leaders – particularly corporate directors and even more particularly, chairmen of boards of directors – understand what disservice they are doing New Zealand by treating women as elephants in the corporate corner. For so many logical, practical, economic, political, social and moral reasons, New Zealand needs more women in leadership roles and on boards of directors in particular. It is surprising that the same men who generally credit themselves with being more logical than women, do either not understand or, refuse to act on this urgent need.
Male leadership is, as Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Commissioner Dr Judy McGregor has put it, “an essential key to cracking the pitifully low number of women on the boards of our major corporate companies”. The Korn/Ferry research shows just how “pitiful” that statistic is. The reality and reasons for this state of affairs are difficult to understand and beg number of questions.
Are Kiwi corporate male leaders so stupid they cannot read the writing on the walls of our fast changing and evolving world? Hopefully not. Do they then covet the trappings of office so tenaciously they can’t bear to yield the reins of corporate power? That might not be honourable, but it is certainly believable.
Or, heaven forbid, are they so arrogant as to steadfastly believe all the truths of corporate wisdom and experience reside between their ears? Hmmm!
Men could show true leadership by sharing leadership equally with women and other minority groups. This state of inequality should not even be an issue. There is no valid reason for perpetuating the status quo. The chestnut that choice is based on the best person for the job, not on gender or diversity per se, is simply to set the male default option. Director selection in New Zealand is secretive, sub-standard and discriminatory. Ironically, the nexus may need to be broken by replacing one form of discrimination with another, albeit more positive one.
A prevailing state of mind, supply and demand squeeze, lack of compulsion to change, limited understanding of the business case for diversity, dismissal of social justice norms, inability to read the relevance of changing demographics, or seeping senility – probably all to some degree, contribute to the current state of the predominantly male corporate being.
It has, and rightly I think, been suggested that one strong male corporate leader who champions women on boards and makes it competitive advantage would make huge difference. One who might do this, is Air New Zealand and Solid Energy chairman John Palmer. He is held in such high esteem and has proven himself so often that he might be listened to.
Women hectoring men achieves only so much. Men talking to other men might prove more compelling. They could both point up the benefits of change and simultaneously take credit for the wisdom of their wisdom.
There is another option. Chairs who preside over large companies with significant female workforces, female investors or female customers might like to be “known and shown”. Conversely, they might prefer to be “named and shamed”. Either way, it’s long past time corporate New Zealand acted in its own best interests. M

Reg Birchfield is NZ Management’s consulting editor and writer-at large. [email protected]

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