Leadership: The rise & fall of our top women

New Zealand has an enviable international reputation as country where it is relatively common for women to hold top leadership roles in government and in organisations. The 2003 Grant Thornton International Business Report showed that, of 36 OECD countries, New Zealand had the fourth highest representation of women in senior management, with them holding 31 percent of these leadership positions. By 2009 New Zealand had slipped to 17th place with 27 percent representation. The Philippines, Russia and Thailand now head this particular OECD table. New Zealand still ranks ahead of all the European countries, the United States and Australia.
Recent research I conducted in 2010 on women appointed to chief executive roles in the New Zealand Public Service illustrates this significant reverse trend. The State Services Commissioner manages the appointment of all core public service departmental chief executives (about 35 of them). Of the last 22 chief executive positions filled, only one woman was appointed and that was as chief executive to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
Other than Women’s Affairs, the last female appointed to public service chief executive role was in 2006 to the Ministry of Education. By 2010 the number of female chief executives in the 35 core departments of the New Zealand Public Service had dropped to four, compared with nine in 2005, new low this century.
There has been slight drop in the proportion of women applying for chief executive positions – 28 percent in 2000 to 2004, compared with 26 percent in 2005-2010. But, when the Ministry of Women’s Affairs appointments in 2003 and 2009 are excluded, the proportion of female applicants dropped from 25 percent between 2000 and 2004 to 20 percent between 2005 and 2010. There was also larger drop in the proportion of women being shortlisted for interviews – 36 percent between 2000 and 2004, compared with 26 percent between 2005 and 2010.
Interviews were also conducted with people either directly involved in the chief executive appointment process, or key influencers within the Public Service. They included recruitment consultants and assessors who assisted the Commissioner and the Deputy State Services Commissioner. Participants were questioned as to why they believed the numbers of women applying for, and being considered as credible candidates for chief executive roles was declining and what could be done to improve the situation.
The interviews suggested that public service chief executive roles have become increasingly complex and difficult, making them potentially less attractive. Appetite and/or tolerance for risk and rejection also emerged as factor impacting potential candidates’ decisions about whether to apply for chief executive positions. Lack of female role models was advanced by several interviewees as another barrier to women aspiring to and applying for chief executive roles.
There was also perception that senior women managers were less likely to advocate for opportunities to advance their careers and were less visible to decision influencers than their male counterparts. This was seen as barrier to women being considered for such opportunities, or being approached by recruiters.
Some of those interviewed for the study thought women are more likely to stay in roles, organisations or job types too long. lack of large scale operational experience was seen as barrier that affected women particularly. One interviewee said that women find it “more difficult to get the necessary track record, particularly gaining relevant experience at tier two level”.
While several interviewees noted that the job performance of females is just as strong (if not stronger, said one) as their male counterparts, some considered that in general, women are inclined to display less confidence during an interview than their abilities warrant.
There was consensus on the strategies needed to improve the number of women applying for and being appointed to chief executive roles. In addition to the need for role models and the modelling of desired behaviour and practices by decision makers, personal action by women is also needed, supported by public service system-wide messages and initiatives to assist women in developing their readiness for chief executive roles.
These strategies included:
• gaining broad range of diverse experiences, including large scale operational roles
• ensuring role models are in place, and modelling of the desired behaviours and practices by decision makers
• active career management and seeking the opportunities to gain the experiences
• increasing personal visibility through networking and high profile roles and assignments
• active engagement with coaches and mentors including working with, observing and emulating successful chief executives
• improved candidate care at all stages during and following the appointment process.
An analysis of State Services Commission media releases shows that successful chief executives chosen between 2000 and 2010 had the following characteristics:
• 45 percent of them had previously been chief executives or the equivalent
• 90 percent came to the role from New Zealand organisations
• 88 percent came from within the New Zealand state sector
• 15 percent came from the organisations to which they were being appointed chief executive.
Given that increasingly, people with relevant chief executive experience are being appointed, the declining numbers of female public service chief executives means this will further compound the reducing levels of female chief executives.
It is also important to understand what is happening with the proportion of women in senior management roles in the Public Service. The New Zealand Public Service has traditionally led the private sector in appointing women to leadership positions. The State Services Commission’s 2010 Human Resources Capability Survey showed that the proportion of senior managers in the Public Service who are women had risen to 40 percent, from around 34 percent in 2001. The ‘pipeline’ of potential female Public Service chief executives has grown over the decade, which does not help explain the reduction in the numbers of women applying for and being appointed to chief executive roles.
There should be corresponding increase in the proportion of women at chief executive level as flow-on effect of the increase in representation of women in senior management. If 40 percent of these senior employees are female, in well-performing system it would be reasonable to see similar numbers at application, short listing, and appointment stages of the chief executive selection process.
Research for the State Services Commission in 2009 examined demand and supply side issues impacting on women’s aspirations and choices with regard to chief executive positions. They found that “women in New Zealand are less interested than their Australian counterparts in applying for chief executive position and are more inclined to view the role negatively”. It must be of some concern to the State Services Commissioner that there appears to be such negative perceptions of the chief executive positions and that an increasing percentage of the talent pool, ie women, does not choose to apply for the positions.
The business case for having women well represented in senior management ranks is increasingly compelling. International research commissioned by global management consultancy McKinsey in 2008 found that companies with several senior level women tend to perform better overall than those without. Organisations with three or more women on their senior management teams scored higher on all nine dimensions of organisational performance than companies with no senior women. The internationally recognised critical mass of women at the top decision-making levels that has significant positive impact on organisational performance is at least 30 percent women.
The research also indicates

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