Anne Gibson

Anne Gibson is the Property editor of the NZ Herald

Old-boys network locks women out: boss

Norah Barlow did a lot of work on the Retirement Villages Act 2003. Photo / Bevan Conley
Norah Barlow did a lot of work on the Retirement Villages Act 2003. Photo / Bevan Conley

New Zealand's male-dominated business culture with its old-boy sports and education network is sabotaging the promotion of women, says exiting Summerset Group boss Norah Barlow.

Barlow, who yesterday finished as chief executive and managing director of NZX-listed Summerset, where she earned around $600,000 annually and oversaw a dramatic expansion of the retirement business, says men promote each other and often overlook capable women who they see as completely different from themselves in their background, interests, connections and associations.

"In lots of companies, when you start making choices, there's an unconscious bias to appoint a person who's like you, which is often a male who played rugby, has gone to this college and played cricket," Barlow said.

While that mindset was understandable to an extent, it was also hugely discriminatory to women, keeping them lower down the corporate ladder, with less power and money than men. But Barlow said she understood men's thinking.

"You can't help that in a way. People are drawn to common characteristics in other people. There's nothing active about the discrimination, it's inadvertent," Barlow said, confessing how she sometimes felt out of place at corporate events with so few women in the room.

The Wellington-based Victoria University accounting graduate remains on the board of Summerset, which has a market capitalisation of $775 million, but also revealed how she was concerned so few women headed NZX listed companies.

"There was only one other woman CEO of an NZX business when Summerset was listed in 2011. Now, there's [Di Humphries] the Pumpkin Patch CEO. I don't think women should be CEO because they're women but there's a failing in the middle management system," said Barlow who continues on many other company boards.

Her comments follow Diane Foreman who in February criticised a small pool of women directors.

"Companies tend to appoint the same women. We need different women around the table," Foreman said, adding that women were still being locked out by the "old boys' network" in New Zealand.

Barlow opposes positive discrimination and instead said women must succeed on their own merits but they often lacked skills.

"I don't want to be taken on because I'm a woman. I think I have skills to offer and that niche should be respected. There's a need for more women directors but that should be coming from skill sets and we're not giving women basic skills. Women can do it, but they're not being respected or encouraged to do it.

"Maybe it's about women's values a lot of the time. We as women don't push as hard as the guys do. It's not that we don't work as hard but we don't promote ourselves," she said.

Rival Metlifecare chief executive Alan Edwards praised Barlow.

"Norah has made an incredible contribution to the retirement village industry, both in her capacity as the CEO and managing director of Summerset, but also as president of the Retirement Villages Association," Edwards said.

"The work she did in seeing through to completion the Retirement Villages Act 2003 was immense," he said.

"I am pleased she will remain involved in the industry as a professional director.

"Her determination and resilience has resulted in a huge contribution," he said, wishing her success including in her new role as a director of retirement business Ingenia Communities.

Former head of village defends deferred fees

Accusations about how retirement villages operate, including the cost to life savings of elderly people, "annoys the hell" out of outgoing Summerset Group boss Norah Barlow, who says they provide a safe lifestyle option.

"That doesn't focus on the 99 per cent of people who are happy. It annoys the hell out of me that people think when you get old, you're stupid," Barlow says.

"People make active decisions to go into a retirement village. The listed players are providing a lifestyle which would not otherwise be available to those people and if it's so bad, why do we have a motorway holdup to an open day at Hobsonville to see our new village? It's young people not accepting retirement villages."

Asked how Summerset could justify taking 25 per cent of a village property purchase price as a deferred fee when a person leaves, she said that money was necessary to fund retirement village operations. "Would everyone like not to pay? Yeah, but without those fees, the lifestyle can't be provided. We deduct money and no, I don't have any issues with it at all."

On low-wage workers in the village industry, Barlow said: "The market directs what people get paid. Summerset is slightly above the average," she said of its 400 workers.

"We make a good profit but there are no super profits. The fees in a Summerset village are about $119 a week on average, only adjusted to the [consumers price index]." Anne Gibson

- NZ Herald

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