New Zealand has one of the lowest rates of women on public-company boards in the western world, according to data from the Institute of Directors.

A report by NZX this week showed that of New Zealand's publicly-listed firms, in 2016 only 17 per cent of board members were women. These figures were unchanged from 2015.

Institute of Directors manager for governance leadership centre Felicity Caird said New Zealand was lagging.

Information from the institute showed 20.8 per cent of directors were women in Canada, 23.3 per cent in the US, 24.5 per cent in Australia and 27 per cent in the UK - which also had no men-only boards in its top 100 listed companies.

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"New Zealand is progressive in so many ways, we were the first country to give women the vote, but in this space it's just glacial change," Caird said.

"These gender stats give us an indication of that," she said.

"We respect that boards need to get the right skills and mix for their own competition but what this is saying is that they're not looking broadly enough as to what their needs might be for a modern board."

Research conducted by the institute of directors showed of 120 companies surveyed, 41 firms or 35 per cent had no women on the board, with 35 companies had just one female director.

Caird said while having a woman on the board was good, it was not enough, and it was a hard and lonely job to have their voices heard and to represent other views.

She said the organisation's view was that the challenges of disruption and a modern world meant a diverse and forward thinking board was necessary for successful business.

Caird said in countries that had higher ratios of women on company boards, the issue had been publicised a lot more, adding that New Zealand was being complacent.

In 2013 after the NZX introduced rules requiring companies to disclose gender figures, the percentage of female directors was just 12 per cent.

This rose to 14 per cent in 2014 and 17 per cent in 2015, but this figure did not change in 2016.

"It started off well," Caird said. "But this is no change, and no change when we need significant change."

Linda Noble, chief executive for Governance NZ and Women on Boards, said the NZX results were disappointing.

"Unfortunately there is still a lack of awareness or acceptance by some of the direct link that gender diversity has to improvements in the performance of an organisation," Noble said.

There were a number of reasons why women were not better represented, including the method of recruitment and the selection process, which needed improvement, she said.

Caird said while it was important to improve the number of female directors, enforced quotas were not the way to go, although aiming to reach between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of board members being women was a start.