From 31 December 2012, companies on the NZX are required to reveal the number of women they have on their boards in their annual reports. At its heart this move is designed to elevate levels of transparency and quietly encourage companies to appoint more women to their boards. At last count just 14 per cent of directors of the top 100 NZSX companies were women.
The aim of Women on Boards New Zealand is "to promote greater gender diversity at the C-suite and board level." CEO Lesley Whyte says, "We were the first country to give women the vote and one of the last countries in the world to put anything in place for gender diversity at the board level." She'd like to see more women directors but maintains nonetheless that "the person needs to be appointed based on merit".
So in the event that two candidates - a man and a woman - were equally qualified for the position, the current approach would favour the woman. Although this seems inherently unfair to men, you'd have to assume by the low level of representation of women on boards that until this point men have had the advantage when it comes to appointments.
It's widely accepted that women are not good at promoting themselves and that they have difficulty getting noticed by decision makers. Yet it would be naive to not apportion some blame to the ability of the "old boys' network" to block women from top positions. So, unpalatable as it may seem to some people, perhaps, for a while at least, a little discrimination in the opposite direction may be justified in order to redress the balance.
Despite accusations of tokenism and claims it's patronising towards women, the drive for more of them on boards has gained considerable traction both here and overseas. The issue of male dominance in UK boardrooms was explored in If tokenism is what it takes to get on, so be it in which it is suggested that tokenism is preferable to outright sexism.
The evidence is overwhelming that having women on the board contributes positively to a company's bottom line. According to Forbes, there is "extensive evidence that indicates companies with more women on their board outperform companies with fewer or no women directors. For instance, the Credit Suisse Research Institute recently reported that net income growth over the past six years averaged 14% for companies with women directors compared to 10% for those with no female board members."
And Labour MP Sue Moroney wrote: "Women directors are better at risk management, less prone to group thinking, better at problem-solving and better able to link to diverse customers. That's what research tells us."
So, if it makes better business sense, you have to wonder why there's a need for formal campaigns to get women on boards. Surely a simple will to maximise performance would dictate that female board members are essential. Ignoring such evidence is counterintuitive. Is sexism really so entrenched that women are systematically left off boards despite the benefits they bring?
While at the big picture level, this attempt to get more women on boards may be positive, on the individual level it's guaranteed to create dissonance. A man passed over in favour of a woman is likely to feel disgruntled. A woman appointed to a board determined to achieve gender representation is likely to feel like a second-class director. And, a woman appointed to a board on her own merits will a) never be certain why she was appointed and b) will always be tainted by the suggestion she's a token inclusion.
It begs the question: why stop at gender in the pursuit of "balanced boards"? Surely other forms of diversity should come under scrutiny too but where are the parallel campaigns for appointments on the basis of race and sexual orientation? Some interesting scenarios would emerge: would, for example, appointing a Chinese lesbian to the board allow the company three separate credits in the diversity ledger?
Facetiousness aside, the campaign for more women board members is probably a worthy one. It may undermine bona fide female achievement, be imperfect and discriminatory but it's also well-meaning. And if it manages to achieve its macro goal of redressing the gross imbalance of numbers of women directors then it may be worth the pain that is likely to be experienced at the individual level - of course, as long as you're not the individual being disadvantaged.
What's your view on the conscious drive to have more women appointed to boards? Why do you think they are so under-represented at present?