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Gender Equality: Is It a Myth? New Zealand May Boast Some High Profile Women Leaders-But the Reality Is That Fewer Females Are Making It to Senior Management Ranks. Vicki Jayne Asks: Why the Slippage? and What's the Business Fallout?

Article excerpt

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 a 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 a 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 a 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 a 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 a 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 a severe misapprehension in this country. We've deluded ourselves by having a 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 a 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, a 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 a 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 a 'traditional' work environment. Many are instead drawn to self-employment which at least gives them a greater degree of flexibility.

"Businesses are not creating the sort of environment that allows those women to stay. They're not creating a 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 a failure to develop workplace diversity dents the Kiwi corporate potential for both productivity and innovation.

"Our belief is that it's not just a gender issue but a diversity issue--and diversity not just in terms of culture or race but thinking styles, age ... There was a recent Gartner report [www. …