Women are losing some of the gains they have made towards workplace equality, the Human Rights Commission says.

In its two-yearly Census of Women's Participation, published today, the commission outlines where the loses are happening, and is particularly critical of private companies.

"The corporate sector remains an embarrassment for New Zealand in terms of diversity of governance, at a time when women are increasingly consumers, customers, clients, employers, employees and investors," the report says.

"It is perplexing that boardroom doors are shut to women at a time when global business requires transformation."

Click here for the full report.

The report says New Zealand is sliding backwards in several areas of female participation.

"Pride in women's progress has been an important element in our national identity," it says, listing a timeline of political dates, from 1893, when women won the right to vote, to 2008, when the first Asian woman was appointed to the Cabinet.

It also says that in the public sector, women are 59 per cent of the workforce but are paid 15 per cent less than men for doing the same or similar work.

Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Judy McGregor said that women's representation in boardrooms was "dismal and embarrassing".

Among the top 100 companies on the NZ Stock Exchange, female board membership has increased to 9.32 per cent from 7.13 per cent in 2006.

Only four, including Pumpkin Patch and three listed investment companies associated with Carmel Fisher, the managing director of Fisher Funds, have gender parity on their boards.

Ms Fisher said last night that the boards of Kingfish Ltd, Barramundi Ltd and Marlin Global Ltd, of which she is a member, had parity on merit.

"I don't believe in choosing women for the sake of meeting a quota."

Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O'Reilly agreed, and rejected the notion of New Zealand following Norway, the Netherlands, France and Spain by legislating to boost the number of women on company boards.

In Norway, all companies have women on their boards, the commission report says, and 44 per cent of directors are women.

But Mr O'Reilly said he wanted to see more women appointed to boards.

"We need to do more in the private sector to make sure women not only get on to boards, but also get into senior management positions."

The commission's census found that female representation on Government-appointed boards fell to 41.5 per cent, from 42 per cent in 2008.

"The half a per cent change is worrying as 2010 was the year that successive governments have indicated New Zealand would achieve gender parity of 50 per cent," Mr O'Reilly said.

But Women's Affairs Minister Pansy Wong said the Government was doing well on that score.

"Since 2004, women on state sector boards and committees have been consistently above 40 per cent."


Karen Roach is one of just four female chief executives at New Zealand's 20 district health boards.

She runs the Northland board. The other women are at the Whanganui, Wairarapa and Rotorua-based Lakes DHBs.

Originally a nurse from Australia, she said yesterday that part of the price she had paid in striving to join the management was to return to work early after the birth of her only baby, who is now 23.

Ms Roach had just landed her entry job into management, as a director of nursing at a Queensland hospital.

"I had three months off. Once I got into a managerial job I knew I couldn't take any more time off [for maternity], so I made a conscious decision not to have any more children.

"I think I would have liked to have had at least another one, but you study and then you get some traction in your career ... You just have to make a decision whether you are going to take significant time out, or keep going."

Her daughter went into daycare at a carer's home after the three months of maternity leave, then to a daycare centre as a toddler.

Ms Roach, already a stepmother to two children when she gave birth, said she had regrets about returning to work so soon: "Someone else hears them talk first, sees them take their first step." But she said her daughter had become a well-balanced young woman.

She said women leaders did not need additional skills or attributes, compared with men of equal educational qualifications, in order to climb through the ranks.

"There's little discrimination if any if you've got what it takes. I think women do bring a different perspective to these jobs - not a better or worse perspective, just different."Martin Johnston