Many Kiwis believe that gender equality in senior positions is an issue

More CEOs and boards need to take the issue of gender equality in senior positions seriously and putting concrete steps in place to support the careers of women in leadership.

Brien Keegan, country manager of RandstadInternational research placing New Zealand near the bottom of the table of 33 countries when it comes to believing there is gender equality in the workplace, comes as a surprise to Brien Keegan, country manager of Randstad New Zealand.

"Typically, New Zealand rates very highly when it comes to things like equality and transparency, so it was a surprise to see our results near the bottom of the 33 countries," he says of the Workmonitor research conducted in the countries where the recruitment and HR firm has a presence. New Zealand is placed 27th on the table.

While 78 per cent of Kiwis surveyed agreed both sexes are treated equally, this is below the global average of 81 per cent. Our Aussie neighbours sit at eighth place.

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Keegan thinks New Zealand organisations can learn from the results.

"We always have to be vigilant that progress in these areas is at the forefront and there's a genuine desire from leaders both male and female to lay the groundwork for the next generation of female leaders to come through, and more of them!"

He suggests organisations interview existing staff and ask what challenges, real or perceived, they feel they face when progressing their careers.

"This will give you a ready-made list of actions you can take to start breaking down barriers that may exist within the organisation."

When asked why he thinks Australia polled higher than NZ, Keegan says it could be argued that Australia has had more female CEOs in very high-profile companies. "Think the likes of former Westpac CEO Gail Kelly, Alison Watkins of Coca-Cola Amatil, Catherine Livingstone of Telstra and Jayne Hrdlicka of Jetstar.

"In New Zealand, aside from Teresa Gattung leading the then-Telecom and Barbara Chapman of ASB, we haven't had a list of female CEOs leading very high-profile New Zealand organisations.

"Our research shows that it does become more challenging for female employees to reach the highest levels of management. And looking at some other stats available, most recently in relation to the gender pay gap widening slightly, it shows New Zealand has more work to do in this area.

He thinks women having the confidence to reach senior leadership positions and directorships depends to a large extent on the managers who have gone before them. "If you've seen a female leader having a more difficult time than their male colleagues, then that could potentially deter someone looking to push forward with their own leadership ambition.

"Additionally, if you see managers working unreasonably long hours and living unhealthy lifestyles to support their work life, then that also acts as a deterrent to the next wave."

But Keegan says New Zealand's top organisations are working to start building the talent pipeline of female leaders in New Zealand, for instance, the gender equality initiative at the Institute of Directors.

"Women make up nearly 50 per cent of the talent pool and we have to ask ourselves as business leaders, what are we doing to support the career ambitions of both genders, recognising that a one-size-fits-all approach cannot deliver the right outcomes for everyone."

He thinks New Zealand will start to climb the ranks in gender equality by acknowledging initiatives need to be in place that support the career ambitions of both genders.

"For example, generally speaking, more men than women consider job security and the financial stability of the organisation as key in their job search, whereas more women than men search for an employer with a pleasant working atmosphere.

"A pleasant working atmosphere is defined as an environment where employees are heard, are rewarded for their work and that fosters trusting relationships between colleagues. I think this demonstrates the need to recognise that men and women have different needs when it comes to their careers and being supportive of those differences. It will help build the talent pool earlier in the process and help female leaders are they embark on their leadership careers."

Advertising, too, has a part to play.

"There will be job ads that could be more appealing to men if they talk exclusively about career progression opportunities, job security and the financial stability of the organisation, as these are factors that our research shows are more appealing to men that to women.

"Whereas a job ad talking more about pleasant work atmosphere factors, flexible working options and a convenient location could be more appealing to females than to males.

"Make sure you appeal to both genders."

He adds that only a quarter of Kiwis surveyed believe it's a good thing to have one gender favoured above another in order to reach the diversity target. Sometimes the right person for a job is male.

"That is definitely the case, and where that happens legitimately, there is no cause for concern. I think where you start to ask questions is when you have a situation where you have such a small percentage of women in senior leadership positions, and feedback coming through, like in Randstad's Workmonitor research, showing that there are still differences in the way women are treated in leadership positions. Then you have to ask yourself, have we got it right? Are we doing enough? I think the answer is there is still work to be done."

Keegan thinks the responsibility for achieving gender equality starts at the top. "More CEOs and boards need to take the issue of gender equality in senior positions seriously and putting concrete steps in place to support the careers of women in leadership. I'm not saying that leaders don't take the issue seriously - but I think, generally speaking, the figures demonstrate that more needs to be done."

Otherwise New Zealand risks losing talented females to overseas positions. "If there are limitations to a person's career in one country, shifting locations isn't the big deal it would have been 10 or 15 years ago," he says.