Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

New Zealand's Boardroom Blues: Time for Quotas

Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

New Zealand's Boardroom Blues: Time for Quotas

Article excerpt


Gender inequality in boardrooms remains a stubbornly pervasive feature of the story of women in New Zealand. Despite benchmarking and monitoring, a flurry of initiatives and the introduction of policy panaceas such as gender diversity reporting, New Zealand languishes near the bottom of the rankings of similar developed countries by percentage of female corporate directors. This article addresses the research question of what strategies should be used to increase women's boardroom representation. It is written from a human rights perspective and examines several underpinning theories of women's demographic and substantive representation. New empirical data shows 'soft' strategies such as voluntary disclosure by listed companies are having limited impact in terms of either demographic or substantive representation. The article concludes by suggesting that potentially unpopular mandated quotas should be considered to cure the boardroom blues in New Zealand.

Key words

women 's representation, equality, gender diversity reporting, women on boards, benchmarking, human rights, quotas.


Gender inequality does not discriminate between different models of work organisation, the management of work or its governance. It is no respecter of occupational sectors, low or high paid employment, and has proved stubbornly resistant to changing economic patterns and conditions. As Williams (2013) says, it is embedded in both traditional and neoliberal employment environments. 'Women are not calling the shots either in the high-rise or on the ship' (Williams, 2013, p.621). In the New Zealand context, they are certainly not calling the shots in governance, despite scholarship urging the 'feminizing of boardrooms' published 18 years ago (Shilton, McGregor and Tremaine, 1996).

The question of equal opportunities in the boardroom has a particular salience for New Zealand. When she was Prime Minister, Dame Jenny Shipley, the first female head of state, personally committed to improving the status of women on boards of directors as a symbolic mark of women's progress. As a follow-up to the Beijing Women's Conference in 1995 she pledged through the Ministry of Women's Affairs to improve the female proportion of statutory boards to 50 per cent by the year 2000 (McGregor, 2000). The 1995 United Nations Beijing Platform for Action moved beyond a focus on anti-discrimination and embraced a commitment to empowerment. It stated:

Women's empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace (United Nations, 1995).

The high visibility given to the New Zealand Government's promise ensured it was regularly measured when New Zealand reported internationally on developments in progressing women's equality with men, as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Inevitably the focus on women's progress on state boards drew attention in comparison to the very low percentage of women as corporate directors in the private sector.

The human rights perspective which frames this article is linked to theoretical conceptions of demographic representation and substantive representation. Both of these theories were anticipated by CED AW and the Beijing Platform for Action. Demographic and substantive representation have been used by feminist theorists (Phillips, 1998; Norris, 2004; Stevens, 2007), primarily in relation to political representation, but also in relation to women's representation in organisational life. The concept of demographic representation suggests that institutions and organisations are unrepresentative because they tend to be drawn from elites. Demographic representation occurs when representation reflects a microcosm of society, free of discrimination. …

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