Magazine article New Zealand Management

The Director: The Sorry Story of Our Women on Boards; Corporate New Zealand's Persistent and Self-Defeating Failure to Appoint Women to the Boards of Our Major Companies Continues Unabated. Board Chairmen, the NZX and the Institute of Directors Could Sort This Sorry State of Affairs If They Cared to, Reports Reg Birchfield

Magazine article New Zealand Management

The Director: The Sorry Story of Our Women on Boards; Corporate New Zealand's Persistent and Self-Defeating Failure to Appoint Women to the Boards of Our Major Companies Continues Unabated. Board Chairmen, the NZX and the Institute of Directors Could Sort This Sorry State of Affairs If They Cared to, Reports Reg Birchfield

Article excerpt

Byline: Reg Birchfield

New Zealand's brief fling with women at the top of its primary governing institutions is over. And throughout the flirtation, corporate enterprise kept its ruling male face firmly set against anything other than token concessions.

The latest statistics released by global recruiters Korn/Ferry International show that more of New Zealand's top 100 boards by market capitalisation, exclude women from their boardrooms than any of the seven Asia-Pacific countries surveyed. And, to make matters worse, the percentage of women on Asian boards is about half that of European and North American boards.

Korn/Ferry surveyed boards in Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, China and New Zealand. Of the top 100 boards in those countries, 65 percent of New Zealand boards excluded women directors. That compared with 29 percent in Australia -- one trans-Tasman gap that definitely needs bridging, 59 percent in Singapore, 57 percent in India, 56 percent in Malaysia, 43 percent in Hong Kong and 39 percent in China.

And none of the New Zealand companies surveyed employed female chief executives -- the lowest level of all the countries surveyed. New Zealand's tiny, exclusive and generally lowly-rated governance gene pool, determinedly denies itself access to 50 percent of the country's working, motivated and increasingly better educated population.

Korn/Ferry's Australasian managing director Katie Lahey agrees that the picture painted by the latest research is, to say the least, depressing. "But," she says, "I feel more optimistic than I have at any other time in my 40 years of working life. We are, I believe, on the cusp of change. There is, at last, a realisation that there is something very strange about boards and senior level management teams being so devoid of women. This issue is at the top of the agenda now for a number of very logical, important and coinciding reasons."

Other countries, including Australia, are now seriously addressing this issue. Some, especially in Europe, have addressed gender imbalance on boards. Fed up waiting for the male-dominated corporate sector to act on its own initiative, governments are changing governance codes and/or implementing quotas. Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark have all now introduced measures that increased the number of women on boards.

Aussie initiative

Closer to home, Australia changed its national corporate governance guidelines by which boards must report their organisation's level of gender diversity. The change came into effect in January. Lahey is surprised at how quickly companies have reacted and embraced the change. With no mandated requirement other than to report the facts of the organisation's gender balance, the number of women appointed to Australia's corporate boards has jumped from around eight percent a year ago to 14 percent in less than a year.

"New Zealand could do worse than follow the Australian approach," says Lahey. "What it shows is that a relatively small change can have a major impact. And by reporting the number of male and female employees in a business the questions become obvious. With so many women on the payroll, how come there are so few in leadership roles? It does not make sense or look right."

Women now make up 25 percent of all new appointments to ASX boards, compared to just five percent in 2009 -- evidence, if it were needed, that men resist change until there is some regulatory or supervisory compulsion for them to do so. That attitude and reticence to accept that women are up to the job might, in part, explain corporate New Zealand's generally poor governance record.

Korn/Ferry's take on its latest survey is that Asian economies, including New Zealand, are at a turning point. Companies that fail to bring women onto their boards to provide advice and direction are, it says, taking several major risks. …

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