New Zealand's economy has a nearly $900 million annual economic hole because of low numbers of women in management roles, new research suggests.

A study of 500 businesses conducted for Westpac by Deloitte found women make up 49 per cent of the workforce but only 29 per cent of leadership roles.

But if there was an even split of men and women in management there would potentially be an $881m boost to the economy and a positive impact on businesses themselves.

Deloitte partner Linda Meade, who undertook the Westpac New Zealand Diversity Dividend study, said its research found two key ways that having equal female and male leadership could lead to better economic outcomes.

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Evidence pointed to more women in leadership roles giving other women role models which encouraged them to stay with or join a company and pursue leadership themselves.

"Having role models means it is more likely other women will say 'actually I can see myself being in a leadership position'," she said.

Deloitte estimated that would add $196m to the economy.

But the biggest boost came from an increased flexibility in the workplace as women leaders were more likely to be more supportive of flexible working arrangements.

Meade said being a role model and promoter of flexible working showed not only that it was possible but it also encouraged more part-time workers which could make it easier for primary care-givers to be in the workforce.

That could add a further $685m to the economy.

Meade said the figures were indicative but were on the conservative side.

She believed having more women in management could also lead to the promotion of childcare being provided by an employer.

Meade said it was concerning that despite many years of pushing for more women to be in management positions they were still not coming through.

Of those surveyed 42 per cent of businesses said they had seen no change in gender balance in leadership in the last two years.

The biggest barrier cited was a lack of talent with 49 per cent pointing to that as a reason for lack of gender parity.

Meade said while people might believe that to be the case she did not believe it to be true.

Judy McGregor, head of social sciences and public policy at AUT and the former Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, said the view that there was a lack of talented women to step into the roles was a myth.

"While that might be the perception of business it is a nonsense to suggest that highly educated, competent and skilled women aren't in your workplace.

"But is this talent promoted, noticed, mentored and advanced?"

McGregor said at the management level the prejudice against women was often a result of simple discrimination.

"Using the fake term 'unconscious bias' implies that no one is actually responsible for holding women back. Women know the bias is more often conscious."

She welcomed the report because it quantified the economic deficit and the opportunity associated with not promoting women's leadership in work and in business.

"However, it is also matter of social justice as well as dollars."

Westpac NZ chief executive David McLean says the research shows the need for businesses to improve their performance on diversity. Picture / Brett Phibbs
Westpac NZ chief executive David McLean says the research shows the need for businesses to improve their performance on diversity. Picture / Brett Phibbs

David McLean, Westpac New Zealand's chief executive, said the research showed the need for New Zealand businesses to improve their performance on diversity.

"The research shows having more women in decision-making roles has clear benefits – for workers, for companies and for the economy as a whole.

"This is not a 'nice to have'. I'd argue gender parity is a common sense priority for businesses wanting to boost the diversity of thought, experience and skills in their organisation. All these things lead to better business performance."

While businesses were making encouraging moves, McLean said there was plenty more that Westpac and other organisations could do.

"Almost half of respondents said levels of women in management had increased in the past two years, which is great. On the other hand, 9 per cent believed they would never achieve parity in leadership. That seems quite incredible.

"It was interesting that just under half of the respondents said a lack of female talent, either in the workforce or internally, was a barrier to parity.

"That flies in the face of statistics that, for example, show women are now earning tertiary qualifications at a higher rate than men, and suggests an element of unconscious and even conscious bias in decisions around hiring and promotion."

McLean said often when a person left a role people looked for someone similar to replace them.

"They think: "I need someone who is like Roger."

McLean said he had got around that issue at Westpac by asking for at least two women to be on the short list of anyone hiring.

The research found only 40 per cent of businesses had a gender parity strategy and of those who had one only 26 per cent measured themselves against it.

McLean urged businesses to see gender as any other business issue and set themselves a target, measure it, and make it part of people's key performance indicators.

Herald-owner NZME has 44 per cent females in its senior leadership team and 45 per cent in its executive team.

The New Zealand Herald, in association with Westpac, has produced 230 special editions of its newspaper in a limited distribution run to graphically illustrate the lack of gender diversity in management roles.