It's been 20 years since Dame Jenny Shipley broke the political glass ceiling to become New Zealand's first female Prime Minister.

But in the corporate world, where New Zealand once led the way in female business leaders, she says the country is falling behind and missing out on the advantages of gender equality.

Shipley, the National Party's only female leader, is now chair of Genesis Energy and pro-women organisation Global Women NZ. She is also co-chairman of Champions for Change and chairman of China Construction Bank.

She has a number of public and private interests and spends a lot of her time supporting women — getting them ready to be directors and chief executives, and also "boards ready for women directors".

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Three quarters of New Zealand's listed companies have no women on their boards, and there is only one female chief executive among the country's large public companies.

"As the first women Prime Minister I can say this, we were ahead, in this issue of women in leadership in business, we are now behind the average and that's not where we're used to being, where we should be and we should work out how to get out of not being there."

Shipley says the number of women in high-profile positions within the public sector is fantastic, but she is disappointed by the lack of women leading in business.

"The engine room in the New Zealand economy is the private sector, and we really need to think about why we're missing that comparative advantage."

Her work with Global Women offers a glimmer of hope for the future, but the rate of change is not fast enough, Shipley says.

"I do see some good intention to progress and the numbers since we began have moved from about 18 per cent of our listed companies to about 23-24 per cent of our listed companies now have women directors on their boards, but three quarters of them do not," she says.

"That, in my opinion, is detrimental for the New Zealand economy."

New Zealand could easily follow France, the UK, Ireland and other European countries' by making it compulsory.

"We cannot afford to dally here because, particularly developed economies, are going to have to be extremely agile to keep up."

Shipley is in favour of introducing compulsory quotas or targets to ensure gender balance on boards and within executive teams.

"I'm right on the border of saying, 'Look, why don't we set some goals and targets, and if we don't achieve them, I think we're going to have to say, 'Should a Government in the future simply set a target by this date that has to be achieved?'

"I'm not a compulsive or compulsory-lent person, but for the first time in my career, I think it is so important for the New Zealand economy to fill that gap out both for our markets at home and our markets abroad to have diverse leadership."

"Yes, it's better than it was but we have got to commit to some milestones and I would not be adverse now to, in three years time, all boards having to achieve whatever ... whether it's 50 per cent or 35 per cent," Shipley says.

Reflecting on her time as Prime Minister between 1997 and 1999, Shipley says society has come a long way in the acceptance of female leadership — but not far enough.

"It in one way seems like a long, long time ago and I've almost got another life," she says. "It's a cloak I wore and that I'm very proud of it, and it was game changing at the time, but I hope it is [seen as] more normal now.

"When I was Prime Minister I remember saying to male chief executives, 'How many women are on your executive team? Is the advice you're giving me balanced? Do I know that you've had women and men grappling with this?'.

"I specifically remember calling out the secretary of Treasury and saying, 'It's not reasonable to bring advice to the Government where you do not have the breadth of New Zealanders and their intellect and experience delivering'."

Shipley is now a board member for the International Finance Forum Beijing, BOAO Forum for Asia and chairman of the board for export company Oravida. She has also been a director for Senior Money International.

But her business journey has not been all smooth sailing.

In December 2012, she resigned from the board of directors of Mainzeal Property & Construction, which later went into receivership in February 2013.

Two years later, the receiver of Mainzeal filed a civil lawsuit against former Mainzeal directors, including Shipley, for an alleged breach of directors' duties.

Shipley says she believes the directors acted as they should have.

"I absolutely regret our creditors [were] put in that position. I'm absolutely sure our directors acted properly and it's a matter now of a civil action."

Shipley was born in Southland and grew up in Marlborough, as the second oldest child, with three sisters.

"We were not well off but we were richly surrounded by loving parents, in a very caring community," Shipley says. "My Father nurtured us in a way that he expected us to have opinions on the issues of the day ... there were high expectations; 'You have to stand for something, you can't stand for nothing'."

Business because it gives us choices, and when we have a vibrant business environment we can lift people who need our support.

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Before entering the world of politics at 35, in 1987, Shipley was a school teacher.

"I wanted to be a teacher, I loved teaching, and astonishingly teaching and politics are very similar — in so far as that you are trying to move people forward."

After 15 years, Shipley retired from politics and returned to the private sector.

Shipley credits herself for bringing New Zealand through the 1997 Asian financial crisis and returning the economy to growth of more than 4 per cent.

Her most memorable moment in business was Genesis Energy's initial public offer.

Her proudest moment in politics was being the first woman to chair the annual free trade conference Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in 1999.

A frequent visitor to China, Shipley has travelled there five times this year, and often visits Africa where she looks after a set of schools in Namibia.

"I'm watching Africa in the same way as I'm watching China because it is an emerging economic phenomena."

New Zealand has a lot to learn from China, Shipley says.

"There are seven emerging economies, which China is the leading one, that are critical to the future of New Zealand. Our old friends are the G7 [US, Japan, Germany, Italy, UK, France and Canada], our new friends, the E7 [China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Indonesia and Turkey], are our tomorrow. They are my children's and my grandchildren's opportunity."

Business is exciting as it has the ability to create change, Shipley says.

"Somebody has to create the cake, and business does that," she says.

"I love business because it gives us choices, and when we have a vibrant business environment we can lift people who need our support.

"Strong, well performing business improves people's lives."

Dame Jenny Shipley

Age: 65
Job title: Chair of Genesis Energy, Global Women NZ.
Education: Qualified teacher, gained through Christchurch College of Education.
Family: Married to Burton Shipley, has two adult children.
Last book you read: Treaty of Waitangi by Claudia Orange.
Last family holiday: Russell, Bay of Islands.
Last movie you watched: The Crown, season 2.
Most memorable moment in politics: Being first woman to chair APEC, in 1999.
Most memorable moment in business: Genesis Energy's IPO.