Women struggle to meet corporate heights

By Margie Elley Brown

Despite advances over the last decade senior-level women still face gender bias in the workplace, writes Margie Elley Brown.

New Zealand women face a longer, harder road to the top than their Australian counterparts says a recent study. Photo / Getty Images
New Zealand women face a longer, harder road to the top than their Australian counterparts says a recent study. Photo / Getty Images

Hard data on how women are progressing in achieving representation at senior levels can be found in the The New Zealand Census of Women's Participation released last November. It showed a two to three percentage increase in many areas since 2010.

"It provides an objective picture of the progress women have made and provides a factual platform for the debate about what should be done," says Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Dr Judy McGregor.

However Dr McGregor said women's low representation at the top, despite increasing participation at entry levels, remained systemic and frustrating after 10 years of tracking the data.

In a recent New Zealand Listener article Theresa Gattung was quoted as saying: "In New Zealand we are lagging behind Australia."

Professor of Organisation Studies at AUT University, Dr Judith Pringle agrees.

"I think Australia is ahead of us. Back in the 1990s they got affirmative action across the public and private sectors, which meant targets and reporting were required for all businesses, both government and state sectors. It's made quite a difference to the mindset of senior men in Australian corporates.

"But in New Zealand we have this bifurcation where we've got legislation that applies to the public sector but not the private. It pains me to say it, but the changes corporations and businesses are making here are because they are branch offices of Australia with examples such as banks like Westpac and ANZ which have done a lot for women in terms of policy and diversity councils. This has all been driven by Australian head offices.

"So, yes it's frustrating."

Professor Pringle cites research undertaken by a Norwegian researcher in 2005 who interviewed women on boards and senior management positions in both Norway and New Zealand.

"The Norwegian women and the New Zealand women agreed on all the influencing factors, gender discrimination, the importance of networks. When it came to what to do about it, the Norwegian women said "Yes, quotas - it must happen, we must have quotas"; and the New Zealand women said - "No, no we mustn't do that - we must never have quotas."

"Today, it seems the opinion around measures to get more women involved on boards and in more senior roles has diluted. In fact I think it has shifted further in that, people are even less keen on the idea of some levels of persuasion or coercion.

"There does need to be voluntary reporting, there also needs to be compulsory reporting and not just about women but reporting on all kinds of diversity."

Galia Barhava-Monteith and Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes are directors of Professionelle, a charitable trust dedicated to progressing women's careers. An executive coach, Barhava-Monteith works with professional women who are at different stages in their career and observes the gender gap occurs well before women reach senior management.

"We need to keep on focussing on the 'pipeline' of women - the pipeline of women in junior management and women graduating from university. I'm not seeing as much focus on this area. There is the assumption the issue is the glass ceiling.

"But the gender pay gap kicks in three to five years after graduation.

"Assumptions are made about women early in their careers and they get can overlooked. Such as if a woman has just got married or has a young family, she won't be interested in career progression. To counter this, women need to be willing to take on challenging stretch assignments, such as overseas postings, which are key in defining a career. These assignments showcase women's abilities. They then have the opportunity to be noticed by decision makers."

Wilshaw-Sparkes agrees women have different career experiences from the start because women are perceived and judged through different lenses then men, and over time the effects cumulate.

She cites unconscious gender bias as a key factor limiting women's career progression.

"We all have it but we don't like to think we do. We're sure we are fair and meritocratic so it is challenging to talk about and take action on. But how else do you explain the double standards that lead to comments such as "he's assertive" and "she's aggressive" for the same behaviours, and "Brian" Miller being judged as more employable for academic tenure than "Karen" Miller for the exact same CV.

"While the effect of gender bias may be small at any one time; it accumulates. Molehills grow into mountains."

Professor Pringle argues it's not just a numbers exercise.

"We're always driven to numbers because they're quantifiable and they're easy to chart.
"Women bring a different perspective because women are different from men. There has been a huge amount of effort put into increasing the diversity of boards with currently four or five different groups of earnestly working towards this goal of getting more women on boards. It's great and they may well succeed but it won't mean boards change.

"Having more women on boards will not necessarily effect change because they are women who have succeeded in corporate businesses, so they have opinions that are acceptable and similar to their successful male counterparts.

"Why should we think their opinions would be any different from the existing incumbents when they've spent twenty years forging the same paths?

"We need women on boards who have experienced different career pathways and who will bring a different flavour."

Professor Pringle's view is informed by long-standing experience in organisational consultancy and academia.

"It is frustrating after all these years people still haven't got their head around differences between sex and gender. There have been huge amounts of energy getting women into higher positions.

"Yet, just because the women have different bodies, doesn't mean they have different cognitive styles or opinions.

"What is needed is a diversity of opinions, and women, who are confident and compelled enough to share those opinions.

"We need very good facilitation of meetings which rarely happens, where people are able to speak and listen without dominating. This will allow people to contribute and allow people to be heard. It's very hard to get that.

"And we need to provide the support and kind of discourse of acceptability - that yes, women who can bring that kind of input will be there."

* Margie Elley-Brown is an Auckland career consultant

- NZ Herald

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