The proportion of women in top jobs at New Zealand companies has sunk to the lowest point since at least 2004, according to new research released today.

One senior Kiwi executive, Xero's Anna Curzon, said the results were "horrific".

Women made up only 18 per cent of senior management teams at companies surveyed by professional services firm Grant Thornton.

That is 2 per cent down on last year and the worst result since the firm began the survey in 2004.


Released on International Women's Day, Grant Thornton said it showed this country had taken "two firm steps back".

Among the 35 nations which take part in the research, New Zealand came in at 33 - ahead of only Australia and Japan.

Globally, women made up 24 per cent of senior management teams.

Grant Thornton partner Stacey Davies said the local results were disappointing and had been slipping since 2015.

"I was hoping in some ways that it was a blip and we'd see some positive change but we now really do have this four year average of 19 per cent which is pretty much showing that this is our new norm," Davies said.

Davies believed the "dire" result was down to businesses having no real plan on how to bring women into top roles.

"People thought things were fine and 'our job is done, there's not an issue, there's nothing we really need to deal with' and an element of perhaps complacency set in," Davis said.

While the vast majority of Kiwi companies had adopted equal pay rules and policies against discrimination when recruiting, Davis said these didn't drive change by themselves.

"It's not just about ticking the box if they're not converting that to tangible progress," she said.

Xero's Curzon said the problem was a "GDP issue".

"If I was in Treasury, if I was the Minister of Finance, I'd be creating action plans. Because we know there is a direct correlation between the performance of businesses and diversity. If your board and your leadership team aren't acting actively to create a workplace that embraces diversity and inclusion then I think you're being negligent," she said.

Curzon, who said Xero's leadership team had an equal gender split, believed corporate New Zealand could become out-of-touch with its customer base if it didn't improve.

"We have a Prime Minister that is a 37-year-old woman, not married and pregnant. Compare that to our corporate behaviour and environment, the danger is corporates lose their connection with their customer ... that's the kiss of death."

Experienced company director Margaret Devlin, who chairs engineering consultancy Harrison Grierson, said it's hard to understand why business is struggling to make the step change to diversity when there is so much evidence to show that women add value.

"The question I have, when there is so much empirical evidence which demonstrates that a business which has diversity will have the ability to have long-term thinking, transparency and social inclusiveness and that women play a really critical role in deploying those competencies, is what is it that businesses are struggling with?

"Is it that there's been an inability to demonstrate this is adding value, is it that it's still being seen as a 'nice to have', is it business not providing the pipeline (for women?) I think it's a combination of all of those things," said Hamilton-based Devlin.

Miranda Burdon, chief executive of Global Women, said the report was " absolutely staggering".

"I see a lot of anecdotal evidence of women doing amazing things," Burdon said.

"We work with a lot of very committed leaders making change in their organisations. But we need to look at the absolutes and ask: Are we proud of this? Quite frankly, I would have expected results to reflect movement in the opposite direction," Burdon said.

"We know all the reasons gender parity makes sense, but when it comes down to it, we are not making those decisions."

This is not about policies any more, this is about action...We kid ourselves and say we are egalitarian. We need to look hard in the mirror. Enough talk."

Dame Alison Paterson, who is on Vector's board, said there was a lot of focus on the topic of diversity and a lot of organisations were trying hard to "right the balance".

"You have to allow time and also you need to be aware that it's not numbers for numbers' sake," Paterson said.

Grant Thornton said information for the survey came from nearly 5000 senior executives globally but could not provide how many of these were New Zealand-based.

- Additional reporting, Andrea Fox