Corporate New Zealand is lagging behind the state sector when it comes to getting more women into leadership roles and some say companies may need to be forced to make change.

At 38 per cent New Zealand now has the highest number of female members of parliament it has ever had including our third female prime minister.

Across state sector boards and committee members more than 45 per cent are women and the government has set a target to get to 50 per cent by 2021.

But in the private sector the proportion of women in top jobs at New Zealand companies is just 18 per cent, according to research by Grant Thornton released in March.

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That figure was down two percentage points on last year and was the lowest since the firm began the survey in 2004.

For companies listed on the New Zealand Stock Exchange 20 per cent of directors were women across the exchange and 27 per cent for the top 50 companies.

But in the top 50 listed companies there are more chief executives with the name John than there are women bosses with just two female chief executives.

Miranda Burdon, chief executive of Global Women New Zealand, said the government and the state sector had been focused on gender on boards for 20 years explicitly driving change.

"I don't think you can say the same for the private sector."

Publicly listed companies have only had to report a gender break-down for their directors and top office holders since 2013 and there is no requirement for private companies to report.

In Australia all non-public employers with 100 or more employees are required to report on the gender composition of the workforce, equal remuneration between men and women and availability of flexible working conditions.

Last year a group of 52 New Zealand private companies and public sector bodies formed Champions of Change and said they would collect data on the gender and ethnicity of their workforce but this is being done on a voluntary basis.

Burdon said large companies were leading the change to have more women in leadership and progress was being made but she said it was not enough.

"Have we come far enough? No, we haven't. I don't think we have put the pedal to the metal until recently."

Burdon said New Zealand needed to have a debate about whether it should bring in quotas.

"As a nation we are not as rule bound and regulated as other nations. New Zealand is well placed to take the lead without explicit rules like quotas but only if we act."

She said now was the time for more transparency in reporting, targets and clear accountability.

Kirk Hope, chief executive of Business Zealand, said clearly not enough was being done based on the figures.

"But I think there is a lot of work going on in the private sector."

He pointed to the rapid increase in the number of women owners of businesses, with figures from MYOB showing an increase from 20 per cent in 2012 to 44 per cent in 2018.

"I think it is important to reflect there are only 50 businesses on the NZX50."

But there were 2000 with 100 or more employees and hundreds with fewer employees than that, he said.

Hope said if there were clear benefits from reporting gender statistics he would support it but said fundamentally reporting was not going to make a significant change.

"It is going to be a cultural shift. There is a big momentum shift towards that."

He said cultural change came through education campaigns and encouraging businesses to make hiring and development opportunities in a gender blind way.

It was also about making sure there were no barriers through tertiary education to study, particularly in the science and technology fields.

"If none of the above work you might consider quotas. "

But he said the issue with quotas was about making sure it was the best person for the job that was hired.

Burdon said the challenge with the "merit argument" was if the definition of merit was not challenged.

"We run the risk of evaluating the person on outdated criteria or through a narrow lens.

"We are not looking to repeat what we have gone in the past.

"We are looking to do things differently to succeed in the future and that tends to take a little more work up front."