Entry-level roles include school boards and NGOs, writes Pamela Cohen, director of Nominations Service for the Ministry of Women's Affairs.

So many women are involved in local small businesses, but relatively few are in director roles unless they are husband and wife owners. Progress is being made to help support women add their voice to the boards of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Directors are so often a male accountant and a lawyer in smaller businesses. How can skilled women have more of a role in SMEs?

Many SMEs in New Zealand have weak governance structures or don't have boards at all. The Institute of Directors' First Boards website (http://firstboards.iod.org.nz/) is a good source of information for small businesses on how to go about setting up a board and the benefits in doing so.

Women who own or run small businesses can inform themselves about the differences between management and governance, and the different skill sets required for each.

I have heard of women who were registered as directors of companies run by their husbands or partners without being involved in the company's decision-making processes.

This is very risky. Directors have legal responsibilities under the Companies Act. It's important for women to understand what they are personally liable for before taking on a role.

For women who would like to be involved in steering New Zealand businesses, what opportunities are there for gaining governance skills and training before applying for directorship roles?

There are thousands of governance roles in New Zealand across the business, government, community and Maori sectors.

Common entry-level roles include school boards of trustees, community non-profit organisations and the boards of business and professional associations. Some of these roles provide training opportunities.

The Institute of Directors also offers a range of training courses for directors.

The Ministry of Women's Affairs Nominations Service has created a one-page diagram that lays out all the different types of roles by sector and level (http://www.mwa.govt.nz/women-on-boards/boards-in-nz/nz-governance-diagram).

Another issue that prospective directors need to be aware of is the importance of choosing the right approach to gain roles on different types of boards. There are two main approaches:

The direct (or elected) approach - putting yourself up for election or replying to a publicly-advertised position;

The indirect approach - making yourself known in governance circles as a skilled director who is interested in governance roles. You can also distribute your CV to various databases such as the Ministry of Women's Affairs Nominations Service and recruitment companies that suggest people for governance roles.

What other activities should would-be female directors involve themselves in to improve their profile?

The Ministry of Women's Affairs' best advice can be summarised as: be focused, know where you fit and make a plan.

Think about what you have that a board might want or need. In making your assessment, think about the skills you have acquired throughout your life. Think about the places you have been, the industries you have dealt with, the communities you understand, the groups you have been a part of, and the issues you are passionate about.

Recognise that the things you have learned in one arena can often be adapted to suit another.

The Ministry of Women's Affairs recently launched My Board Strengths, a unique online self-assessment tool to help women who want to serve on boards.

The aim was to provide personalised governance advice and to help women assess their current skills and give them tailored information on the types of roles that might be suitable.

Users can choose to take part in virtual board meetings to experience the board room environment in a private online setting.

My Board Strengths can be found at www.mwa.govt.nz/women-on-boards.


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