There are signs that NZ is slipping when it comes to nurturing female leaders, writes Gayle Peterson.

New Zealand rightly prides itself on being a leader in women's rights. It was ranked sixth out of 135 countries in the Global Gender Gap report for 2011.

New Zealand's gender pay gap is the second lowest in the OECD and at 9.3 per cent in 2012 was the lowest measured in the country. But there are signs New Zealand is slipping in its nurturing of women leaders.

While women make up nearly 50 per cent of New Zealand's workforce, only 9.3 per cent of board directors in New Zealand are women.

According to the latest research from Grant Thornton's International Business Report, women hold 28 per cent of senior management positions, the same as 2012 but down from 32 per cent in 2011 and still behind the 2004 level of 31 per cent.


Reinforcing these trends is the fact that last year, 26 per cent of businesses had no women in senior management and this year that figure has risen to 30 per cent.

What is going wrong for women in business in New Zealand and should we be concerned? The answer is a clear yes.

A recent World Economic Forum study shows senior executives are being kept awake at night by large-scale global challenges such as volatility in food and financial markets, corruption, lack of access to water, and climate change. These problems can only be addressed through collaboration, experimentation, and doing more of what seems to work while doing less of what doesn't.

There is a growing body of research showing that women excel at precisely these ways of operating. A comprehensive study by Zenger and Folkman surveyed 7280 leaders. At every level, women were rated higher in overall leadership effectiveness than their male counterparts, with the greatest gap evident at the highest executive levels.

The leaders were also rated on 16 core competencies top leaders exemplify. Not only did women excel at "nurturing", such as developing others and building relationships, but at all levels, women rated higher in 12 of the 16 competencies that comprise outstanding leadership.

Moreover, two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree - taking initiative and driving for results - have long been considered to be particularly male strengths.

Decision-makers are beginning to notice, too, the growing body of academic research proving that gender-balanced leadership teams perform more effectively.

A report by McKinsey & Co shows gender-balanced executive committees have a 56 per cent higher operating profit compared to companies with male-only committees.

Similarly, the research organisation Catalyst found a 26 per cent difference in return on invested capital between companies with 19-44 per cent women board representation, and the companies with zero women directors. It also found that across industries, businesses with three or more women on their boards outperform peer institutions, producing higher returns on equity, sales, and invested capital.

So in the face of this evidence, why is New Zealand not doing more to support women in the workplace and to help them fulfil their leadership potential?

New Zealand is experimenting with policies to reverse the recent downward trends. For instance, companies on the NZX are required to reveal the number of women they have on their boards in their annual reports. But more needs to be done.

If organisations hope to succeed in the long term in an increasingly complex world, they need to look at the cultural and social patterns that limit opportunity. Simply asking women to "lean in" or "think their way through" is not enough.

A 2011 report by McKinsey & Co substantiates the idea that cultural changes must take place to create enabling and supportive environments that dispel misperceptions about the roles and contributions of women.

Companies that wish to survive and thrive in a complex world will need to actively promote these changes, ensuring women are mentored and included in networks that promote innovation and creativity (regardless of gender), as well as encouraged to obtain training in burgeoning areas such as communications and information technology.

Additionally, to develop these leaders, policy-makers, society and private companies must work to support women's economic empowerment lifecycle at all stages, and reinforce them often.

This cycle starts in the beginning with the critical physical, emotional, and intellectual shaping that occurs in infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Each phase of a woman's economically productive life, from income readiness to employment and entrepreneurship, and, ultimately, to financial security and leadership presents additional opportunities to put more women on the path to economic empowerment.

We need to provide women around the world with deliberate, positive support to break down barriers and become the leaders we so urgently need if we are to solve our increasingly complex problems successfully and sustainably.

Gayle Peterson is co-director of an executive education programme for women in the Said business school at Oxford University.