Money Editor for NZ Herald

ASB chief Barbara Chapman: How to get to the top

Barbara Chapman says companies need to ask why women aren't applying for senior roles. Photo / Michael Craig
Barbara Chapman says companies need to ask why women aren't applying for senior roles. Photo / Michael Craig

Barbara Chapman didn't get the job as chief executive of the ASB the first time she applied and she nearly didn't apply the second time as a result.

But prompting by long-time mentor and former ASB boss Sir Ralph Norris encouraged her to put her name forward.

Five years later she is still in charge of one of New Zealand's largest banks and also one of the few women at the top of the New Zealand corporate world.

She has few peers - there are no women chief executives in the top 50 largest companies listed on the New Zealand stock exchange.

According to Global Women NZ, women made up only 17 per cent of directors and 19 per cent of senior managers in New Zealand last year.

Chapman puts the stubbornly low rate of women in top-level jobs down to decisions made by previous generations.

"This is still a generation change we have got and I am not happy with that.

The inaction of 20 years ago - it didn't happen then so we have lost ground."

Thirty years ago Chapman wrote a dissertation as part of a postgraduate diploma in industrial relations on the time it would take to reach gender equity in the banking industry.

The trajectory of change at the time suggested equity would be reached by the late 1990s.

"I got a really good mark for the essay but in hindsight I should have failed," she says.

Looking around at her own senior management team, she knows there is still a long way to go.

At the present turnover rate, if everyone who left was replaced by a woman it would take six or seven years to reach a 50-50 ratio.

"When you stare into the raw numbers it makes me think we have a long way to go," observes Chapman.

And she says it wouldn't be fair for today's generation of extremely talented men to pay the price for past decisions.

"I do not believe cohorts of men should pause in their careers to let women come through - it still has to be about the best person for the job."

But she believes New Zealand is picking up its game.

"If you look around New Zealand there is more flexibility in the workplace, regulatory reform around equality, all this stuff is going on and has been for three generations."

But she says there needs to be more intent within corporates to push the changes.

"We certainly don't need more lobby groups. It's not about more awareness. You would have to be living under a rock to not know the stats or the economic evidence for having more women at a senior level."

She says companies need to ask why women aren't applying for senior roles.

At the ASB all interviews for applications for senior level positions have to be conducted by a male and female interviewer.

If no females respond to a senior job advertisement, it is rewritten, and if the company finds mainly male attendees coming to its corporate functions it asks those people to try to bring a senior female from their firm.

What puts women off applying for a top level job? She puts it down to:

Long lists of requirements in job ads and words and phrases that imply a lack of flexibility or rigid requirements.

Off-putting phrases such as "must excel at", "at all costs", "must be exceptionally results driven", "must be prepared to always go the extra mile" and "must be overly success driven".Chapman has also signed up to a pledge not to appear on a panel unless it has a balance of male and female voices.

"A lot of it is about being heard. If you go with a panel that is all men, that is not allowing women to get seen or heard and get their views across."

As a senior leader, she says she is often in a room where there is only a tiny percentage of women.

But she says she has never come across a situation where the men have not been inclusive.

"They are inclusive individuals - there is no us and them thing happening.

"So the conditions for success are good. It's just a question of being purposeful."

Her advice for women wanting to get to the top include building a support group and raising your personal visibility, including accepting invitations.

Although many corporate events happen outside work hours, Chapman says having a family should be no excuse to not attend as men also have families to consider.

"All of my direct reports at any one time are balancing school pick-ups and drop-offs. Life happens - work is what happens around life."

Chapman, who has an 18-year-old son who has flown the coop this year to start university in New York, says she juggled family and work life by having a nanny when her son was young. Later, when she moved to Australia to work for the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, her husband took time out of the workforce to be a stay-at-home dad.

Barbara Chapman

• Has been chief executive of ASB bank for five years.
• Before that she spent five years on secondment to the parent company, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, as the bank's group executive, HR and Group Services, based in Sydney.
• Worked for 12 years as a senior executive at ASB specialising in marketing, human resources and retail banking roles, and then as managing director of Sovereign.
• Was a member of the senior management team that transitioned ASB into a nationally operating, full service financial services institution.
• Holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree and a Diploma in Industrial Relations.
Born in New Plymouth and moved to Christchurch as a child where she attended intermediate, high school and university.
• Married with an 18-year-old son.
• Age 56.

- NZ Herald

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