Women have a hard time in the workplace. But the news isn't all bad, says Diversity Works New Zealand (formerly the Equal Opportunities Trust).

Diversity Works' April survey showed there were women within the leadership or decision-making teams in 48.4 per cent of workplaces, compared with 39.2 per cent in October last year, says chief executive Bev Cassidy-Mackenzie.

Although public companies have poor statistics for women at governance level with only 16 per cent women on boards, broader surveys taking into account organisations of all sizes are showing an improvement.

Cassidy-Mackenzie says her organisation believes that a greater number of women in the wings at management level or the next level down will make their way into the statistics in the next few years.

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Despite all the good work done on empowering women, the outcomes aren't a good look for New Zealand. Recruiter Robert Walters commissioned research across Asia and the Pacific into the problem and found that:

*86 per cent of females in New Zealand feel women are under-represented in leadership positions in business

*54 per cent of women believe there is a preference by management to promote men over women

*52 per cent of male respondents cited "family pressure" as being the main barrier for women

*33 per cent of female respondents believe their organisation has clear gender diversity policies compared to 44 per cent of male respondents

*67 per cent of male professionals surveyed in New Zealand feel there are strong female role models in their organisations, compared to 57 per cent of female professionals

*51 per cent of New Zealand professionals believe that offering senior management networking opportunities would also be a good way to develop female leaders in their organisation.

"In a nutshell the large majority of New Zealand women feel under-represented in the workplace which highlights the need for organisations to address career progression for women into senior management roles," says James Dalrymple, Robert Walters' Auckland director.

One Kiwi who has benefited from being employed by a progressive company is Margie McCrone, head of the research team at Freeman Media. At the age of 26, McCrone has been elevated to her employer's management team.

Unlike some women in the workforce, especially those who have taken breaks, McCrone has felt nothing but supported over her seven years with Freeman media. She started part-time while studying law at Victoria University and went on to become a full-time employee. From the beginning she has been supported by management and given many opportunities to progress her career. When she proposed moving to Auckland and taking on a business development role, McCrone's superiors backed her all the way.

McCrone is also mentored by the general manager of Freeman Media, Neil Wembridge, who has helped her deal with a range of issues. "He is my go-to person when I need advice and insights on how to go about things," she says.

That included a move to Auckland, where she is the only employee, and also opportunities to manage staff at a young age. "That is one thing that Freeman Media does really well. They are really keen to retain staff," McCrone says.

Being co-opted to the management team was a fantastic opportunity to get an understanding of business strategy at such a young age.

Not only is McCrone dedicated to her employer as a result of its progressive approach to empowering women, she also believes the company's management team benefits from the diversity of having a woman among its numbers and a young woman at that. "It really helps with the diversity of the team," she says.

True diversity does need to be implemented top-down. An example of that is insurer Sovereign, which has won awards for its diversity policies. Those policies have seen a change in the makeup of both its senior management team and board. Sharron Botica, chief officer, people & CSR at Sovereign says her company made a conscious decision to launch a "diversity inclusion strategy" in 2010 and has seen direct business benefits.

That strategy has led to a review of its internal development programmes to include gender issues in the learning, a focus on EQ (emotional quotient) as well as IQ, enhancing mentoring, training to overcome conscious and unconscious biases and other programmes.

The Robert Walters white paper Empowering Women in the Workplace concluded that there were six "key learnings" from the research that could help empower women if taken on board by leaders of organisations. They are:

Key Learning #1: Hiring managers need to find out at the hiring stage what candidates want out of their careers, thus allowing hiring managers to better assess the resources and training required to help empower them within the organisation. This leads to a lower attrition rate and better employee satisfaction.

Key Learning #2: Employers need to identify and harness the strengths of diverse teams. Currently gender bias means assertive vocal women may be seen as overbearing or "behaving like men", whereas their nurturing, gentler counterparts are perceived as weak, the report found. Focusing on individuals' strengths achieves greater results and helps develop high-potential workers into leaders. The good news here is that Diversity Works survey showed that more than half of New Zealand workplaces now have a policy or programme or initiative in place to address gender balance.

Key Learning #3: Offer flexible working options for both parents and provide a cohesive strategy for supporting women during maternity leave to combat loss of productivity or employee attrition. Cassidy-Mackenzie says paid parental leave is also making a difference in New Zealand.

"Many fathers are now primary caregivers, giving women further flexibility," she says.

Key Learning #4: Mentoring helps women in their career development. In particular, mentorships were most helpful in areas such as career planning, career risk management and increasing aspiration levels.

Key Learning #5: Women should be encouraged to showcase leadership by giving them high-visibility initiatives.

Key Learning #6: Start gender diversity from the top. Whether it's the controversial gender quota imposed in management boardrooms or diversity key performance indicators (KPIs), leaders at the top of every organisation should take the lead in ensuring the views and needs of all employees are well-represented.