Fairer sex out in the cold

By Gill South

Some of New Zealand's most powerful businesswomen have called for companies to improve diversity on their boards after a blighting report from the Human Rights Commission showed a dearth of female directors.

There are only 45 female directors in the stock market's top 100 companies and they represent just 8.65 per cent of 624 board directorships.

While some commentators say women need to take different career paths to get a seat around the boardroom table, others, such as Retirement Commissioner Diana Crossan, say there are women ready and waiting for the role.

Crossan, who has several directorships thanks to public, private and not-for-profit experience, says the private sector takes a less-professional route than the public sector when selecting directors.

"It's about who you know," she says. "That is why there are very few women on boards and men are on several. I know heaps of women who would be great on boards. It has to come from the other end."

One of New Zealand's most-accomplished female directors, Susan Macken, who sits on the Bank of New Zealand and Southern Cross boards, says companies that focus on men reduce their talent bases.

"The most important thing is diversity on the board, not of gender, but of thinking," says Macken. "I would not push a woman's agenda but advocate taking a competency-based approach.

"I don't buy into, 'We need more women on this board'. I buy into 'these are the things we need'.

"If it comes in the shape of a woman, great. There are not a lot of women on boards. I would love to see more and will do what I can to help.

"We should want women on boards not for feel-good reasons, but because it is an important business issue. Organisations have traditionally been designed and run by men, so women with different styles and career needs often struggle to fit in.

"I don't think time is the answer. The percentage of women in director roles in the private sector has barely changed in the past 15 years."

The Cambridge graduate, who has worked for the World Bank and has held several executive roles at Fletcher Challenge, started her directorship career at a state-owned enterprise, Landcare Research.

The reason there are more women on the boards of public companies is because there has been an active campaign to get them on board, says Macken. "The failure of the private sector to do so has been a failure to take advantage of a fantastic resource, and that's the female population.

"Women are there ready and waiting and enthusiastic about contributing. For Southern Cross, I was the right gender. They wanted a woman. I am a beneficiary of an enlightened chair. We have actively tried to get women and have two now, but it was a long ride."

Shayne Quanchi, Hallenstein Glasson's new chief executive, visited New Zealand recently and was amazed when told she is the only female CEO in the top 50 companies listed on the NZX. "I am not sure of the mindset of New Zealand men," says Quanchi.

"Is it because there are no women, or is it because of the old chauvinist culture that is taking longer to eradicate in New Zealand? I would like to see more women in top positions but you have to pick the best candidate for the position regardless of sex."

Fellow Australian Ann Sherry, former CEO of Westpac NZ and now CEO at Carnival Australia, says it seems to be getting worse.

"I've gone, Theresa [Gattung's] gone too - and the other blonde [AMP Capital's Catherine Savage]. I think that attitude is the biggest barrier. New Zealand has had women as CEOs, senior women in banking, finance, law firms - you can't tell me the talent's not there."

She puts a lack of women directors down to the size of the business community. "It's relatively small in some ways and that's made it clubbier - a lot of business is done on personal relationships," she says.

Sherry warns of the consequences of a board where all think alike.

"It's 'group think' that gets companies into trouble," she says. "Companies in New Zealand and Australia performing badly are suffering from group think. They should bring in a different way of thinking."

Last week, Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Judy McGregor said she'd like the top 10 companies on the NZX to say they are making moves to bring women on to their boards. She points the finger at Fisher & Paykel.

"I would say about 80 per cent of its whiteware is bought by women, and it markets itself as the sponsor of the Silver Ferns, " says McGregor. "If it's good enough for women to buy the product, and market the product to women, would it not be good to have women on the board?"

Business New Zealand's CEO, Phil O'Reilly, saying he is pushing for more female directors. "I don't think we are doing well enough. I am as frustrated as the next guy or girl about it."

Rather than aiming to be chief executive or financial officer, which are the positions that go on to the boards, New Zealand women often go into corporate, human resources and public relations positions, which are not "board track" positions, says O'Reilly. "If you want businesses to do something, then you need businesses to drive it."

Michael Barnett, chief executive of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, believes there needs to be some champions to promote the cause.

Company chairmen have said to him they can't find any good women, but with more than 70 CVs from women directors on his website - www.womendirectors.co.nz - Barnett says he tells them, "No, I just don't accept that".

Jens Mueller, of the Waikato School of Management, who set up www.finddirectors.com a year ago, says about 30 per cent of the 320 directors on the site are very well-qualified women. "If you broaden your search you will sweep up some superbly qualified women," he says.

Juliet Bourke, a partner in the Australian firm Aequus, a management consultancy which helps organisations improve gender diversity, is against boards seeking a female director for the sake of it. They should seek diversity, she says, bearing in mind that if they fail to hire women, then they are missing out on the opinion of 51 per cent of the population.

Some women will not help the diversity - they can be "men in skirts", says Bourke, who is not in favour of positive discrimination. But boards should improve transparency and accountability, helping people to understand their own stereotypes.

She agrees with O'Reilly that women are still too often in executive support roles rather than in key profit-and-loss roles, and boards expect their directors to have that experience.

In an indication of what may be a more enlightened attitude in Australia, Stafford Bagot, an associate principal from Sydney-based headhunter Heidrick & Struggles, is identifying a niche for female directors and drawing up a list of emerging women executives.

He has concluded that the best boards have at least two, women board members.

"Not only for governance, internally they provide great role models for executive staff," says Bagot.

Margaret Jackson, the former chairwoman of Qantas, is a great advocate for mentoring junior executives.

"It's amazing how many retail and consumer-focused companies lack women when 50 per cent of their customer base is female."

- Herald on Sunday

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