It's the beginning of a new decade, one in which artificial intelligence is set to threaten our jobs and electronic cars take over our roads.

But as we head into the 2020s, one thing stays the same — the woeful representation of women at the top of the corporate ladder. At the time of writing, only one of New Zealand's top companies has a female CEO.

"It's something we can't seem to shake," says Siobhan McKenna, CEO of Global Women.

"There is an incredible amount of bias when it comes to CEO roles."


It's not all bad news, however. Though there's not much data around female representation in leadership from the beginning of this century, more recent data indicates we are on the right path. The public sector made a commitment to a 50/50 balance in male/female leadership in 2018 — recent stats indicate they have achieved this.

The Champions for Change Diversity Report 2019 also reveals some improvements in female representation in leadership.

It revealed that out of 631 board directors, 164 were women; however, 11 of the top 100 companies have no female directors on their boards.

On a more positive note, 37.4 per cent of board members were women, up from just 22.8 per cent in 2018. Key management roles see women coming in at 34.6 per cent, up from 32.4 per cent.

Boards who are part of Champions for Change (which is comprised of CEOs and chairs who are committed to raising the importance of diversity in the business community) are now more than 37 per cent women vs 22.8 per cent for NZX-listed companies.

McKenna says the Diversity Report has done much to raise awareness around female representation in the workforce, and has led to leaders in business paying more careful attention to representation and putting in place initiatives to achieve parity.

She is careful to point out that their needs to be a concerted effort to avoid tokenism.

"We need to be careful to not put one woman on a board in the name of diversity.


"That can be incredibly isolating and really just takes things backwards. It's all about achieving balance."

She says there is now a general acceptance among the top 100 businesses around the importance of workplace diversity.

"We can thank the likes of McKinsey [the global worldwide management company] for the reports they have undertaken revealing how diverse teams outperform like for like teams when it comes to business success."

For women to achieve greater parity in terms of both leadership roles and pay, there needs to be a commitment from the top. The key obstacle for women in their careers is the time taken off for having children.

Businesses that offer flexible work conditions, transparent pay scales, and equal parental leave to both men and women can attract talent that would otherwise be lost due to childcare commitments.

Global Women released statistics last year that revealed only 320 dads took parental leave last year, as opposed to 30,000 mums. McKenna says that there is a well-documented 12.5 per cent career penalty for women who take parental leave.


Women who take time out to care for their kids experience an 8.3 per cent hourly wage penalty after a year off paid work.

This has a flow-on effect — women who take time off (or work part time to raise children) will end up with a smaller retirement fund.

Encouraging dads to take time off to care for children can help address this. ANZ, for example, offers staff 26 weeks' paid parental leave, to either parent.

"In Norway, dads who don't take time off to care for their kids are frowned upon," says McKenna. Changing the societal norms can change life outcomes for women.

Another issue around women in leadership is our concept of "leaders" — the 1980s' style of loud blokes strutting around the office.

Women are less likely to self-promote, and this means they are often not considered for leadership roles. McKenna speaks of workplaces in other countries that opt people in for promotions — they need to opt themselves out to be out of the running.


"People need to ask to be taken out," she says. This means that there is a level playing field, with consideration going to those who may not have naturally put themselves forwards.

For cultures within organisations to change, there needs to be commitment to inclusion at the leadership level.

As "soft skills" (adaptability, emotional intelligence, flexibility) become more important within business, leaders with such skills will be able to manage their teams towards more inclusive environments.

McKenna says the promotion of more women into higher leadership creates a culture of diversity.