Sir Bob Jones

Commentary on issues of the day from the property tycoon, author and former politician

Bob Jones: Female directorships - careful what you wish for

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Executives run companies and make policy decisions and the directors are simply Christmas tree decorations. Photo / Thinkstock
Executives run companies and make policy decisions and the directors are simply Christmas tree decorations. Photo / Thinkstock

In the early 1960s, to widespread disbelief, a woman lawyer hung out her shingle in Lower Hutt. I recall with colleagues gazing awestruck at this madness. Who would possibly use her? we asked. "I will," promptly asserted an industrial building investor mate, noted for his extreme eccentricity, and so he did, but no one else followed and she soon vanished.

Women have come a long way since in New Zealand, rated last month by the Economist in the top five nations in its glass ceiling index. Prime ministers, Cabinet ministers, the chief justice, judges, the Ombudsman, government departmental heads, bishops, boxers and bulldozer drivers, mayors, company CEOs and entrepreneurs, doctors, editors, farmers, commercial pilots, governors-general, soldiers, ambassadors, professors; there's no field where they don't play an equal part and no one notices gender any more.

Moreover, this is particularly praiseworthy given women's innate irrationality handicap, such as driving in the right-hand lane or pushing golf carts before them, despite their being designed for pulling.

And as for law, women now outnumber male graduates and are also progressing splendidly in equality terms with law's flipside, namely crime.

Despite some recent strong performances they still lag behind men on the murdering front but make them mere pikers in the theft as a servant stakes. Scarcely a week passes without another mid-40s divorcee company manager or accountant before the courts, having nicked a few million from her employer.

All of this has been achieved in a relatively short time. Half a century ago, women were married at about 20, thereafter fulfilling their prescribed role as mothers and home-makers. Two decades later, with the children gone, they often devolved into dullard appendages to their husbands.

Here's an example. Back then my girlfriend and I (she was the only female I ever saw fishing) would walk to the Tongariro River's large Major Jones pool parking lot, cross the swing bridge and head upriver seeking pools to ourselves. In the parking lot would be up to a dozen cars containing middle-aged and older wives of the anglers working the Major Jones pool out of sight down the river.

There they sat, immobile, not reading, not talking, instead just staring blankly ahead, awaiting their husbands' return, often as much as eight hours later. We called them the clumps. Such non-participating lethargy is inconceivable today.

My initial puzzlement about women's lib after it arose in the 1960s, abruptly ended when I read Frank Sargeson's 1969 novel The Joy of the Worm, which awoke me to women's plight, epitomised by those Tongariro clumps.

Now feminists in Britain, Australia and New Zealand are again on the warpath, agitating to overcome what they describe as the last male bastion, namely public company directorships. They should think again, for it's a most ignoble and parasitical ambition.

The importance of public companies is grossly exaggerated, as they comprise only a small part of the economy. Remove the top five and the remainder are insignificant in the overall scheme of things.

Public company boards of directors are required by law, but for all their prescribed roles of policy-setting and watchdog shareholder protection, history repeatedly shows they're utterly ineffectual. So, too, with the many dozens of government boards, which merely provide sinecures for political mates. Having been on both public and government boards I know what a total waste of time they are and now won't have a bar of them.

The reality is that executives run companies and make policy decisions and the directors are simply Christmas tree decorations. "A Lord on the Board", sneered the British entrepreneur Tiny Rowlands decades back, mocking the image value of public company boards, but nothing has changed since.

In his 1980s heyday, Ron Brierley controlled dozens of public company boards here and abroad. He refused to pay non-executive outside directors, first because they contributed absolutely nothing and second, because there was always a queue of useless public figure sad-sacks, the male equivalents of yesteryear's Tongariro clumps, incapable of ever starting a business themselves, who viewed directorships as prestigious - God only knows why.

In recent years some honest men of good repute who accepted finance company directorship baubles found themselves facing criminal trials because of an ill-considered law, namely strict liability.

Nevertheless, in prostituting themselves through accepting these free-ride pretend roles, they in part deserved their fate.

During one of those trials, at day's end, the prosecuting QC, a lessee in my building, turned up and flopped into an armchair muttering his disbelief. The following exchange had occurred. "You accepted the chairmanship of a company engaged in property development finance?"

"Yes."

"Do you know anything about property development?"

"No."

Women should think again about directorships, for far from trailing men, it's greatly to their credit that so few are debasing themselves in this way.

- NZ Herald

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