The Government is losing almost $1 billion not having equal gender representation in leadership according to a recent report, and it's time businesses stepped up.

The research, which came out of the Westpac Diversity Dividend Report conducted by Deloitte, also found only one in four companies thought they would reach gender parity in leadership within five years.

The issue of a lack of gender diversity and pay equity was debated at the M2 Journey to Excellence forum in Auckland this afternoon.

A panel of five female leaders – Spark chair Justine Smyth, entrepreneur Theresa Gattung, insurance leader Naomi Ballantyne, DLA Piper partner Tracey Cross and Deloitte partner Linda Meade - discussed the issues and made recommendations to the 300 people in attendance from more than 30 companies.

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Gattung said there had been positive trends and momentum but more needed to be done, and 125 years after women got the vote, progress wasn't fast enough.

"We have to normalise women in leadership and we need to have more women in those executive positions, not just HR but the C suite jobs too.

"There should not still be 25 per cent of listed companies with no women on their boards," she said.

Although companies needed to do a lot more in this area, it was also up to individuals to choose which companies they worked for Gattung said, and to opt for businesses that offered flexible working for those that needed it, or had a strong female leadership team.

My Food Bag was one such example, with the company implementing a policy that offered double the mandatory paid maternity and paternity leave for its staff.

The other option Naomi Ballantyne said, was to start your own company.

Ballantyne's company, Partners Life, is one of the most successful insurance businesses in the country, although not spending as much time with her son while working had been difficult she said.

According to Smyth, the answer was a relatively simple one.

"There are proportionately more women in lower level and men in higher level roles, so of course there is a pay divide," she said.

"The way to fix the pay gap is to get women into these leadership positions."

Evidence from the Diversity Dividend report 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.

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 caregivers to be in the workforce.

The event was the first of a series, aimed at closing the pay gap and raising the issues of gender equality in the country.