New Zealand is being left behind among Western nations in addressing the lack of women on boards.

We are now one of the few developed countries not taking affirmative action to boost the number of female directors.

A new report by former British Cabinet minister Lord Davies recommends the UK's top 100 companies set a target of a minimum 25 per cent female representation on their boards by 2015.

It says chairmen of FTSE 350 companies should set out the percentage of women directors they aim to have in 2013 and 2015, and chief executives should review the number of women they want on their executive committees in the same period.

Listed companies should then report annually on the proportion of women directors, executives and employees in their organisations.

Women currently make up only 12.5 per cent of the members of boards of FTSE 100 companies in the UK, up from 9.4 per cent in 2004. The improvement is too slow, the Davies report says.

"At the current rate of change it will take over 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK."

The UK move is similar to Australia's "report or explain" model. The ASX now requires its members to disclose how many women board directors and senior managers they have, and to provide progress reports on gender objectives.

Since the changes started being implemented last year, women have made up 27 per cent of all new Australian board appointments. This compares with just 5 per cent in 2009.

On this side of the Tasman the NZX has refused to take a similar path, even though just 9.3 per cent of directors of the top 100 companies are women.

Other countries have taken various actions. Norway, Iceland and Spain have quotas of 40 per cent female representation on boards, and France has proposed a similar quota.

"When I was first involved in this issue about 10 years ago it was Australia looking across here with envy at the positions women were achieving in politics and business, and now it's kind of reversed," Philippa Reed, chief executive of the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust, says.

The EEO Trust runs a number of programmes to develop top female talent, including a corporate mentoring system and a series of governance seminars in conjunction with the Auckland Chamber of Commerce. But these kinds of initiatives are where the effort ends, Reed says.

"There doesn't seem to be as much of an appetite for some of the harder measures in New Zealand as there does in Australia at the moment."

The issue is one of good business practice, not equality, she says.

The Davies report says women account for about six out of every 10 university graduates in Europe and the US.

"The failure of any business or economy to maximise the talents of all its people will result in below-par performance."

Homogeneity on boards produces "group-think", whereas women bring different perspectives, it says.

They tend to prepare more conscientiously for meetings, and ask the awkward questions.

A study by a UK asset management firm showed FTSE-listed companies with at least 20 per cent female board representation had significantly higher operational and share-price performance.

A Leeds University Business School study found having at least one female director on the board cut a company's chances of going bust by 20 per cent.

Board director Janine Smith runs EEO Trust/Chamber of Commerce seminars which cover material such as governance versus management, board and legal structures and effective practice.

It's often more about building women's confidence, she says. "An observation by some people would say women like to feel confident before they put themselves forward for a position, so they can tick nine out of 10 boxes."

Lawyer Mai Chen chairs the Global Women organisation of female Kiwi business leaders.

She says she's heartened by the Australian moves.

"I'm a public lawyer and I'm interested in mechanisms that work."

However, getting women to the point where they can be considered for directorships is key. "Women are not able to amass the sort of CV that gets them into board positions because there is a male view of who would be appropriate to take those roles."

She says a woman CEO recently told her about a chairman who spoke plainly on the issue of hiring women.

"He said, 'when we get a young male candidate coming to the board table we say to ourselves that man's just like me when I was younger, we should give him a break'.

"'But when a woman comes to the table we say, 'what's not in her CV?' Because there's not that identification."

Grabbing every chance to climb ladder of success

Vanessa Oakley, director of group regulation, competition and litigation at Telecom, is one of 16 executives going through the inaugural year-long Women in Leadership programme being run by the Global Women organisation.

She says the intensity and structure of regular workshops, audio conferences and teleclasses cement her learning.

"It's not something that you go to a course and say, 'that was interesting' and then put it on the shelf and file it away."

She is considering aiming for a board position and says gaining confidence is a factor for her. And with a busy life she has to make an effort to prioritise networking. "Those 5.30pm drinks sometimes are not ideal. [But] it is really valuable to be a connected leader in an organisation."

Oakley believes she has been given opportunities over the course of her career. "I don't feel I've been held back at all, but I'm willing to take every opportunity that's in front of me to keep going forward."