IN TOUCH: Knocking down doors

Do you like John Key’s new suit? Have you seen what George Bush has been wearing lately? Thought not. So it’s sad state of affairs when the only letter to the Dominion Post in response to story on Prime Minister Helen Clark’s meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice mentions their clothing. For women in top positions are still rare breed. That’s despite some tiresome media perceptions that women hold the top jobs in this country.
The reality, as Minister of Women’s Affairs Lianne Dalziel said at recent Deloitte/NZIM Women in Business Networking Series in Auckland, is glacial improvement in their prospects.
“The truth is that small number of high profile women have broken through the glass ceiling but the fact remains that the carpet remains very sticky.”
Dalziel draws her evidence from last year’s New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation which reveals that paltry seven percent of directors on our top 100 listed companies are women. That’s just two percent more than two years before.
That seven percent means we stack up way behind Norway (22 percent), the United States (13.6 percent) and the United Kingdom (10.5 percent). We’re even, for heaven’s sake, worse than Australia which manages to ensure 8.6 percent of its top companies’ directors are women.
“It’s only marginal difference but I always like to throw that on the table because most New Zealanders don’t like to be behind Australia in anything,” says Dalziel. “Instinctively, it almost can’t be right.” And no, she can’t put her finger on an easy explanation for that uneasy fact.
Dalziel refuses to buy into notions of conspiracies designed to lock our women out of our boardrooms. Nor does she accept that tokenistic quotas will do the trick in the private sector – although goals to achieve an even split between male and female board members in the government sector by 2010 are concentrating the mind wonderfully.
Instead, she sticks to the slower route of building business case to prove that diversity is, as one Canadian study puts it, “not just the right thing but the bright thing to do”.
Certainly, there is no shortage of studies to bear out her claim that there is link between better representation of women on boards and stronger financial performance. And in any case, there’s certain lack of logic in thinking that shoulder-tapping among men is the best way to provide the fresh blood needed at the helms of our nation’s enterprises.
New initiatives are under way. Besides the Institute of Directors’ members-only board appointment service, which matches members with board openings, Dalziel notes three new groups are developing web-based nominations databases that will make women with appropriate skills more readily available to businesses. (See box story “Helping hands”.)
All of which raises the question of why women would want to spend their time and energy fighting to be heard by bunch of old men who may neither want nor value their input.
Directorship, Dalziel acknowledges, is not for everyone. “It is challenging… It can be uncomfortable being the only woman. Sometimes assumptions are made… and often you say nothing until you are confident enough to foot it with everyone else.”
Then there’s the notion of the “glass cliff” – the danger of women being sidelined into high-risk roles that jeopardise their fledgling reputations.
“At the board level there has been way too much emphasis on the higher level corporate experience that the private sector is looking for because they are simply reinventing themselves,” says Dalziel. “They are self-perpetuating bodies as long as they continue to think that this is the only way to grow governance expertise that will benefit their company in the long run. That narrow way of thinking can’t continue.”
For now, however, we’re wrestling with system that in the words of Maverick author Ricardo Semler, sometimes “throws up the wrong sorts of leaders” and “alienates women”.
“I know I will not be the Minister of Women’s Affairs who celebrates the day when even quarter let alone 50 percent of board members of the Top 100 are women,” says Dalziel, “but I do hope to see some real progress in my lifetime.”

Helping Hands
• Professional director Sandy Maier and Waikato University Management School’s Jens Mueller have launched new service (For more details see the article in this month’s issue of Management’s sister publication The Director.)
• The Auckland Chambers of Commerce and the Equal Opportunities Trust are developing web-based brokerage service to connect suitably qualified women with small to medium enterprises seeking board members.
• Rosanne Hawarden (Computer Support Enzed and Syspro New Zealand) is setting up an internet-based service called Real Contacts for Directors.
• Also check out the Ministry of Women’s Affairs’ website for links and more information

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