New Zealand's slow progress in increasing the number of women on company boards is no longer just glacial - it's embarrassing, according to a women's advocacy group.

Figures released by the NZX show the percentage of women directors on listed company boards increased from 19.7 per cent to 22 per cent in 2018 - just four more women than in 2017.

Most of the change was at the top end of town with the percentage of female directors on the top 50 companies increasing from 27.2 per cent to 27.3 per cent or three more women.

Outside the top 50, just one woman director was added to a board increasing the percentage from 14 per cent to 17 per cent.

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The NZX reported noted number of women directors on NZX50 boards was similar to the ASX200 which has just under 28 per cent.

But Global Women says there are still 27 New Zealand listed companies or 18 per cent with no women on their boards and the country is lagging far behind other developed nations.

In the United States, 2.6 per cent of companies have no female directors; in Australia it is 4.4 per cent; and India only 6.6 per cent.

In the United Kingdom, France, Finland and Italy, every listed company has at least one female board member, it says.

Miranda Burdon, chief executive of Global Women, described the situation as embarrassing.

"When you compare it to the UK, France, US, even India, that is significantly worse. I think that is extremely embarrassing for New Zealand."

Burdon said it was appalling the over 50 per cent of NZX-listed companies had either no women or only one female director on their board.

"It puts us well behind similar countries."

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Burdon blamed the lack of women on poor leadership.

"If you look at larger NZX entities they are more representative and balanced."

She said those companies had made changes to board diversity at a much faster rate than smaller companies.

Last year, a report by Westpac pointed to concerns about a lack of suitable women directors to go on boards.

But Burdon said the lack of talent excuse did not stack up.

"Women are overrepresented in all post-graduate and undergraduate degrees in the past decade. It is not a lack of talent."

Last year, Global Women contacted all boards which did not have a female director and offered to help them find one.

"We believe there is an opportunity for New Zealand to lead."

Burdon said those who had diverse boards had made a conscious commitment to make change.

"This is about individual leadership and taking accountability for addressing what is happening in the board room."

Investors are now paying more attention to diversity with global fund manager Blackrock and local KiwiSaver manager Simplicity taking a strong stance on it.

"We would encourage other institutional investors to start looking at what diversity commitments are being delivered."

She said New Zealand retail investors were not particularly good at activism so the onus was on institutions to be active in that space.

"As a nation, we have taken such pride in being progressive."

She said it was important for people to know how poorly New Zealand was doing when it came to corporates.

"We are not keeping up."

Burdon said fewer than 10 per cent of listed companies had female board chairs.

She said it was up to boards to address the issue.

They could start by making a firm commitment to make change and putting a timeframe on it rather than just discussing the issue.

"It should be explicit with a date and a target not ' we hope it will happen - it must happen."

She said it also involved recruiting people in a different manner by looking at the skills the board already had and filling the gaps.

Burdon said boards also needed more than one woman.

"One woman - it doesn't change the dynamic. If there is one woman it is hard for her to be heard. She has to work very hard to have a voice."

New Zealand boards typically had six directors. She said two women could make a difference while three would change the environment of the boardroom.

She said boards needed to tap into different networks to find women and having a regular rotation of directors was also helpful.

"A lot of this is about avoiding group think. It takes time to do something differently. You can't think it will be as easy as tapping someone on the shoulder."