Gender parity in corporate boardrooms has stalled in Aotearoa New Zealand. This is despite the number of women in the boardrooms of the top NZX 100 companies by market capitalisation stumbling over a quarter - 25.9 per cent - for the first time, according to the latest Sex and Power 2019 research in a census of board diversity.
The research - by myself at AUT, along with Simplicity NZ Ltd, and independent legal researcher Cat MacLennan - shows 164 women of the 631 directors on the board of the top 100, a 1.8 percentage point gain from last year when 24.1 per cent of directors were women.
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Progress has stalled because of our lack of imagination. We've been complacently content to set low-hanging targets, well short of equality, and to be satisfied with painfully incremental progress. This is despite strong rhetorical homage to gender equality by politicians, business networks and women's advocacy groups championing change.
New Zealand has too many boards without any women (11 out of 100) and too many boards where the pattern is "one and done" as a token nod towards boardroom equality (47 companies have only one or none).
My analysis that New Zealand is marking time is based on 22 years of experience of counting, comparing, analysing and reporting on boardroom composition in the public and private sectors as an academic, and previously as New Zealand's first Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner.
I wanted to be made redundant from the role of researching and measuring boardroom equality at least a decade ago when we should have achieved gender parity. Instead at the current rate of progress it could take another decade before women reach 50 per cent of directors at the corporate table.
A belief in visibility and transparency and "what gets counted gets done" has evaporated over time. Naming and shaming and being identified with a nil result, or with one woman on a board of six, eight or 10 directors, hasn't been a catalyst for corporate progress.
Boardroom equality has always been a gender headline act for Aotearoa New Zealand. The first female head of state, Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, in the late 1990s first pledged through the Ministry of Women's Affairs to improve the representation of women on statutory boards in the public sector to 50 per cent by the year 2000.
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The current Minister for Women, Julie Ann Genter, re-set this target for 2021, a 21-year slippage. But government appointments to statutory boards have always been a symbolic and progressive marker of women's progress by comparison with the corporate sector. Currently women's representation stands at 47.7 per cent. New Zealand happily laps up plaudits for its public sector gender equality performance.
So what can be done in the corporate sector? Can we anticipate winds of change? British media report that shareholders have put gender back on the agenda at the 2019 annual general meeting season. One shareholder advisory firm, Glass and Lewis, has turned the heat up on "one and done" boards where progress has stalled after one female has been appointed to a board. ShareAction, a UK-based charity, has launched a campaign called "Keeping Gender on the Agenda", focusing on board diversity and equal pay.
Shareholder and consumer mobilisation should not be under-estimated. The Royal Shakespeare Company recently jettisoned BP as a sponsor in response to activism from young people who threatened protests over fossil fuels and climate change. There's widespread political and cultural aversion here to equality quotas or statutory targets. Feeble accountabilities set by NZX for diversity policies of listed companies have not been a catalyst. We've also been counting for more than 20 years.
Is effective shareholder activism next in the fight for corporate boardroom balance?
• Judy McGregor is a professor at the Auckland University of Technology