Theresa Gattung: Why there are so few women at the top

United Nations Women ambassador Emma Watson speaks during an event held on International Women's Day. Photo / Getty Images
United Nations Women ambassador Emma Watson speaks during an event held on International Women's Day. Photo / Getty Images

Every shade of business woman was honoured in the Queen's Birthday Honours - from Jan Dawson, Chair of Westpac, for excellence in Governance through to successful entrepreneurs Sarah Paykel and Annette Presley to Franceska Banga, venture capital and early stage companies, to Tara Lorigan, Founder of Co.OfWomen which she set up to connect and champion women entrepreneurs.

But what's this? Business Hall of Fame 2016 - no women nominated.

• 50 top company CEO's, 0 women - 2016

• 50 top company CEO's, 0 women - 2015

How can the paradox be explained when we see New Zealand as a place enjoying equality of opportunity for all?

How can there be so few women at the top?

Well first of all it must be said, because of what it takes, male or female, to get there, but particularly for women it is hard to get the right commercial experience, and business involves making the right decisions most of the time.

In business it is still harder if you are a woman. Models of leadership tend to be male. It is harder to get to the top, it is harder to stay there and the penalties for failure, or perceived failure, are higher.

In both business and politics a much narrower range of attributes and styles are acceptable for women.

If you are too tough you are a bitch, if you are not tough enough you are too soft. And yet we have to be authentic otherwise what we say doesn't ring true. Being authentic to your own style but having that fit quite a narrow spectrum of what is acceptable leadership behaviour from a woman is actually quite tough.

Researchers found that a female CEO who talked disproportionately longer than others in an organisational setting was rated as significantly less competent and less suitable for leadership than a male CEO who talked for an equivalent amount of time.

"Importantly this effect was found among both male and female perceivers." (AFR February 2015, extracted from the New York Times) Therein lies the rub as they say.

Perhaps we all carry a degree of unconscious bias, women as well as men.

Academics at the University of Utah and Washington University in St Louis conducted a study published in 2012 in which they showed a prospectus for an initial public offering to a group of 222 MBA students, 45 of whom were women.

One group were shown the prospectus with a male Chief Executive listed as leading the company and the other group were shown the same prospectus but with a woman listed as a CEO. No prizes for guessing the results.

"Despite identical personal qualifications and firm financials, female founder CEO's were perceived as less capable than their male counterparts and IPO's led by female founder CEO's were considered as lesser attractive investments the study found."

To get to the top takes fierce determination and singlemindedness, great resilience and a desire to be respected stronger than the desire to be liked. This comes naturally to most men but not so naturally to women. It also requires a great support team, at home, on the job and on the move.

Usually there are one or two women who have the determination, single mindedness and resilience it takes to get to the top in a large corporate but right now we haven't even got that, and role models are so important for other women coming through and for our daughters.

When I was in Melbourne two weeks ago I was stunned to come across Her Place, Women's Museum Australia, honouring women and inspiring girls. And that is what honouring women does, it inspires girls.

Who would have thought that not only would America be ahead of us but also Australia?

In the past thirty years I have seen that word "feminism" repudiated and now reclaimed by a younger generation, like Emma Watson, taking a year off to work on her "HeForShe" campaign and closer to home Lizzie Marvelly.

Emma Watson launched the HeForShe campaign at the UN in September 2014.

She was warned against using the word feminism in her address because it was viewed as too alienating. Watson's speech made the important point that gender stereotyping affects both sexes and that men needed to be invited to join the conversation as well.

Since her speech HeForShe has begun a global conversation on gender roles in sexism with topics like the pay gap finally starting to take centre stage.

The internet has made it possible to build a global business from your home and a lot of women have chosen that path.

There have always been great entrepreneurial female role models in New Zealand. People like Wendy Pye and Diane Foreman and more recently Cecilia Robinson.

Women of talent and determination who are drawn to business and for whom that is their expression of themselves in the world will find a way.

Who would have thought that not only would America be ahead of us but also Australia?

The Financial Review Business Person of the Year in 2015 was Catherine Livingstone, Telstra Chair and President of the Business Council of Australia.

There are people who are trying to change this picture. The men and women who are part of the 25 % Group are trying to improve the situation.

You would have to say though at the moment the results speak for themselves, that we don't apparently care enough about this as a country for it to be any different, even if someone did get the memo this year and made sure that businesswomen got a fair sprinkle of the Honours Awards.

- NZ Herald

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