WOMEN IN MANAGEMENT: Gender equality – Is it a myth?

You might think, looking at the top levels of New Zealand leadership, that the proverbial glass ceiling has been soundly split. But one prime minister or chief justice does not revolution make – and losses like that of Telecom’s Theresa Gattung, Westpac’s Ann Sherry or Slingshot’s Annette Presley help highlight how thin the ranks of female CEOs really are.
In the past three years New Zealand has actually slipped backwards in terms of female representation at senior business management levels, according to the 2007 Grant Thornton International Business Report. In 2004, its survey ranked us as equal fourth among nations surveyed with proportion of 31 percent. That figure has now dropped to 24 percent and we’re in 10th place behind countries like the Philippines, Russia, China and South Africa.
More than third (37 percent) of the 150 Kiwi businesses included in the global survey had no women in senior management: 40 percent had just one.
It’s not that the country lacks female talent – or even that it goes unrecognised – more that business seems to lack the will to create an environment that encourages female participation at senior levels.
The problem is most evident when women want to return to work after having children. Moving from full-time mum to full-time manager isn’t the best option for many but there’s not lot of choice. Part-time roles are few and far between; flexibility to work from home is still viewed with suspicion in many organisations; and there obviously aren’t quite enough willing house husbands to fill the gaps in what are often complex childcare arrangements.
We’ve perhaps been somewhat misled by the prominence of few women in our political and business landscape into thinking we’re doing okay on the gender equality front, suggests Leadership New Zealand (LNZ) chair Jo Brosnahan.
“I think we’ve been working under severe misapprehension in this country. We’ve deluded ourselves by having few high-profile women in positions of power and we’re not putting enough effort into creating the substance behind that – we’re not putting down the ladder for others to follow.”
It’s no coincidence that many high achievers either don’t have kids or have partners prepared and able to take on the primary parenting role. But there are plenty who don’t fit either of those descriptions.
“There are whole lot of women who want it all – both work and family – but the environment is still not there to make it possible and easy,” says Brosnahan.
LNZ, not-for-profit trust set up to focus on developing the quality of this country’s leadership, runs annual programmes for mid-level leaders from wide cross-section of the working population. Brosnahan notes that women participants are often in the sort of part-time, entrepreneurial, or not-for-profit roles that offer them greater work choice. It’s the corporates, she suggests, who are missing out.
She says her recent conversations with young women leaders highlight the challenges they still face in terms of trying to manage it all in ‘traditional’ work environment. Many are instead drawn to self-employment which at least gives them greater degree of flexibility.
“Businesses are not creating the sort of environment that allows those women to stay. They’re not creating caring, supporting environment that enables women to have children and work part-time – consequently they are losing those women,” says Brosnahan.
Microsoft New Zealand managing director Helen Robinson agrees that New Zealand business could do more to encourage women leaders and believes that failure to develop workplace diversity dents the Kiwi corporate potential for both productivity and innovation.
“Our belief is that it’s not just gender issue but diversity issue – and diversity not just in terms of culture or race but thinking styles, age… There was recent Gartner report www.gartner.com that talked about getting the best team mixes at leadership or any level in the organisation. The point it made was if you want the best in terms of output [from work team] then you have to have good level of diversity in that team.”
With workforce whose average age is 37 – many of whom have young families – work flexibility is an important part of the drive for diversity. It’s policy that Microsoft champions world wide. Last year it made the Time “Where Women Want To Work” top 50 list of companies for range of family-friendly policies that include variable or compressed hours, formal or casual home work and part-time or job share opportunities. More than 90 percent of the company’s UK staff consider themselves to work “flexibly” either in terms of hours or work location.
There is natural synergy between the world of IT and work flexibility – given the first to large extent enables the latter. number of IT and consulting firms made Time’s top 50 list and it’s worth noting that IBM NZ is also headed by woman, Katrina Troughton (featured in Management Woman April 2005) who champions workforce diversity. Her company’s flexible work options have helped boost the percentage of women returning from maternity leave from around 60 percent six years ago to 96 percent.
Good technology, notes Robinson, plays big part in enabling flexible work options.
“If organisations have good IT in their business – integrated, inter-operable and organisationally sound technology architecture – then they are going to increase productivity as well.”
Both Troughton and Robinson blend top jobs with parenthood. Forty-two-year-old Robinson has two teenage daughters and son aged 10. She is lucky, she says, in having the best of both worlds.
“I have husband who works from home. We’d always wanted to have one parent who was available for the kids – less so when they were very little but more when they were bit older and needed someone to talk to. So I was very fortunate he was able to do the kids’ round. We also had nanny for about 10 years.”
The post-maternity decision as to whether or not to go back to work is big one for many women, says Robinson and companies can help by providing more options.
“We have to encourage more women to make the choice when they understand all the criteria and know what’s right for them. If my children didn’t love me or thought less of me or were challenging kids I would think differently about my work situation. But having me work has, I think, added dimension to their lives they may not have otherwise had.
“They are very independent – they can cook, they contribute around the house, they do well at school and are not afraid to stick up for themselves. But when they’re sick, they ask for Mum and while it sounds bit odd, that makes working okay. And when I’m home, I’m home – I spend Saturdays doing the netball and soccer and that’s very important.”
As the fifth in family of six, Robinson learned early how to fend for herself and believes independence is one of the most important attributes parents can instil in their children – because confidence is critical to success.
“One of the challenges for women in business is in not setting the glass ceiling too low. There’s lovely quote from sports player that says you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take and that’s so true. But whatever bar you set is what you’ll achieve – so you can’t afford to set it too low.”
That goes for the economy as whole. Her involvement with the NZ Business Excellence Foundation and The Metro Project (an Auckland Regional Council initiative to help build world-class enterprise in the region) are all about being the best you can be.
Encouraging the next generation of young women leaders is also important. Robinson recently facilitated career-insight day at the company’s Viaduct Harbour office for 66 Auckland Girls Grammar School (AGGS) year 12 and 13 girls following participation as panelist at Women in Technology’s Lipstick Lunch.
“I think Microsoft has responsibility to the industry and the education se

Visited 4 times, 1 visit(s) today

Business benefits of privacy

Privacy Week (13-17 May) is a great time to consider the importance of privacy and to help ensure you and your company have good privacy practices in place, writes Privacy

Read More »
Close Search Window