Success in NZ no longer just a guy thing

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Awards show gender equality may finally be the norm at top table.
Joan Withers being named Chairperson of the Year is a great achievement and also symbolises women's growing presence in the boardroom. Photo / David Kerr
Joan Withers being named Chairperson of the Year is a great achievement and also symbolises women's growing presence in the boardroom. Photo / David Kerr

The Deloitte Top 200 Awards dinner was wonderful.

It was great to see Joan Withers named Chairperson of the Year. Does this represent a breakthrough for women in leadership roles? Well, the world's called it too soon in the past.

Geraldine Ferraro's 1984 nomination as US Vice-Presidential candidate was heralded as a breakthrough for women reaching the top of US politics. But it took until 2008 and Hilary Clinton for a woman to run for nomination for US President. That's a long time between drinks!

New Zealand's called it too soon in the past too. There was a time in the early 2000s with Helen Clark as Prime Minister, Sian Elias Chief Justice, Margaret Bazley Director General of the Department of Social Welfare, the largest Government department, and former Westpac NZ chief Ann Sherry and I running two of the biggest companies that one often saw the phrase: "Women running the country."

That was a good line except it wasn't true.

It has always been possible to achieve as a woman if you have been determined enough, worked hard enough, networked well enough, and ideally remained child-free, making it all the easier to approach and manage your life in the way an ambitious and talented man might.

I have never been asked by a man how to find a mentor. I get asked that by women all the time. Men aren't interested in mentors, they want sponsors, high-ranking sponsors who can actively campaign for their advancement.

It is also true that it has always been harder as a woman. As the Guardian reported recently, as late as 1970 the top five orchestras in the US had fewer than 5 per cent woman musicians.

In the 1970s and 80s orchestras started using a screen for "blind" auditions. Even when the screen was only used for the initial round it had a powerful impact - researchers determined that this step alone made it 50 per cent more likely that a woman would advance to the finals. By 1997 the top orchestras had 25 per cent female musicians.

Interesting that men and women don't even have to open their mouths for unconscious bias to kick in. They just have to be men and women.

Women may currently only represent 5 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs but in 1995 this number was zero. In 2009 Ursula Burns replaced Anne Mulcahy at Xerox, becoming the first black woman CEO to run a Fortune 500 company and the first woman to follow another woman as a CEO at a Fortune 500 company.

Women hold 17 per cent of the top four leadership positions just below CEO in the S&P 500, that is CFOs, COOs. In 2014 the number of women replacing men in the executive levels in America reached a six-year high and the number of women taking over these roles from other women also increased.

Now in New Zealand women at the top table, whether executive or board, is finally a wave, becoming a tide, which will carry all boats, impossible to resist.

What was so especially wonderful about that Top 200 dinner was not only that a woman won one of the supreme awards, but that in that room every table had accomplished men and women, including among them two of the leading politicians of our generation - Dame Jenny Shipley and Judith Collins - two of the most successful commercial lawyers of this decade - Pip Greenwood, Partner and a previous Chair of Russell McVeagh, and Cathy Quin, Chair of Minter Ellison Rudd Watts - and the CEO of the company co-hosting the evening - Jane Hastings, chief executive of NZME.

Aah - the slipper finally fits. And it feels wonderful.

Turns out you don't need a Prince. Just many Principalities.

Theresa Gattung is co-founder of food delivery company My Food Bag and a former chief executive of Telecom.</strong>

- NZ Herald

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