BNZ boss Angela Mentis says she used to believe natural ability and a decent work ethic would be enough to get women to where they wanted to be in the leadership ranks.
"I thought targets were artificial," she said. "I was wrong."
That's what Mentis told attendees at a Women in Leadership conference in Australia this week.
"The reality of women's lives, the extended gaps in our careers due to the demands of families and caring, and the fight against ignorance and unconscious bias require we put hard targets up in lights and shoot for them."
Mentis, who has been in the top job at the BNZ for 20 months, also spoke of the discrimination and challenges she faced in climbing the career ladder.
In the 90s she was in a business meeting with an entrepreneur who needed help restructuring his debt-laden company.
When he told her: "I ain't letting a bloody sheila tell me how to run my business," Mentis recalled how her vision narrowed.
"The men were gone. Oh, I could feel their eyes, knew they were waiting for me to sit down, walk out, do anything other than stand up."
But she stood her ground and came up with a plan that proved successful.
Mentis said change took time, and pointed to the progress women were making.
"No longer are we surprised by the appointment of a CEO to a Fortune 500 company or major business institution – there are more female CEOs in the Fortune 500 (34 at last count) than there have ever been before and the pace of that change is accelerating.
"No longer is it astonishing to have women lead countries, being as it is that we had Merkel and May in Europe, and in New Zealand three Prime Ministers have been women including a new mother."
But she said the work was far from over - pointing to the fact that a third of women still suffer violence at the hands of men and women earn between a third and a half less than men in equivalent roles.
"We're still significantly under-represented in business and politics, and only six countries give women the same legal work rights as men."
She urged women who want to move up the career ladder to put up their hands.
"Make it known that you want to take on new opportunities. It does not matter if you're not ready. Embrace discomfort and take it on."
Mentis said it was also important that women be themselves, rather than trying to be like men.
"Women feel that they need to change the way they are to lead ... to adopt more domineering, authoritarian leadership styles in order to prove themselves.
"But this is clearly not the case - strength is no longer defined by aggression and force, it is so much more than that ... it is compassion and humility, it is vulnerability, it is meaning what you say and being unafraid and unbowed."
She cited Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's response to the Christchurch mosque shootings as a clear example of that.
For those who have already reached the top, Mentis urged them to turn around and help others get there too.
"Once in a position of leadership, you must turn around and do everything you can to pull more women up and deliver balance."
In her time as BNZ CEO, Mentis said she had increased the percentage of women in her senior leadership team from 19 per cent to 37 per cent and had a target of 40 per cent.
The bank now had mixed-gender interview panels, gender-balanced shortlists and unconscious knowledge workshops, and the executive team had committed to mentoring and sponsoring female entrepreneurs.
"We don't claim to be a world leader in diversity, but I am proud of the steps we have taken to improve gender balance and we are focused on it."
Mentis also pointed to the need for flexibility in the workforce and for it to be taken up by all workers, not just parents or women.
"Without flexibility in how, when and where we show up for work, the game will continue to be rigged against women.
"Inflexibility and our increasingly on-call culture is felt acutely by women. We still bear the dual burden of work and care. Looking after children, caring for elderly relatives and answering work emails is an all too familiar, not to mention exhausting, routine for many women."
One in seven workers at the BNZ worked flexibly, but 91 per cent of those who did so were women.
"Entrenched assumptions are that it is women who in the main drop out of work or go part time after having children – women are homemakers and men are the breadwinners - we will never get equality unless that changes."
She said flexible working was also a key to wellness.
"Mental health, resilience, flexibility, happiness ... the world has slowly come around to not only recognising the complexity of our lives and our minds, but actively managing that complexity - building corporate structures that support people rather than force us to adapt."
Mentis said too often she was reminded of the consequences of not doing enough.
"In the last 20 months I have attended more funerals than I can remember. We have said goodbye to seven of our BNZ whānau ... with one of our people taking his life. I feel these losses deeply."
Mentis urged the leaders to work harder to improve the "humanness of our organisations" so people were better supported, were encouraged to be themselves and could put their hand up when they did not feel well, mentally, physically or financially.
"As leaders we have a responsibility to contribute positively and provide the environment for our people to thrive."