"Business here is done at the pub over beer." The message, articulated by a posse of male peers, was clear.

It was 2010 and I had just been appointed New Zealand's Trade Commissioner to Singapore. I was one of the youngest to hold the role, I was female and from a minority group.

Many of my customers and stakeholders were male and the "meetings" at the pub acted as a male bonding session and I would be seen as intruding.

While I can and have done business at the pub (though I don't drink) there are numerous other ways to do business. Today, International Women's Day, is a reminder of the important contribution women make.


A McKinsey report on gender parity concluded US$12 trillion could be added to the global economy by closing the gender gap. Yet in New Zealand only one NZX50 company has a female CEO and among the 125 listed companies last year, only 17 per cent of directors were women, falling to 13 per cent in the final quarter.

When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked why his Cabinet was 50 per cent women, he replied "because it's 2015". It's now 2017 and calls for female representation on boards and in C-suites continue.

In New Zealand, we've just launched Super Diverse Women and the Treat Her Right campaign.

I commend these initiatives, and am honoured to be an established member of Super Diverse Women, but I'd prefer we didn't need such initiatives. Equality should be a norm.

I have been fortunate to work at incredibly diverse organisations and lead very diverse teams. I have witnessed how a range of experiences and backgrounds helps drive innovation and business success.

We didn't always get it right - but having everyone at the table was often the best start.

Here are some ways to be part of the change to a more equal society.

Put yourself in someone else's shoes. I wonder whether we would discriminate against a gender, a race or a cultural background if our loved one was the target. Imagine the person you are dealing with is a family member or a friend.


Would you be more supportive of flexible working arrangements, which have been proven to help in achieving gender parity? Or would you confirm the latest research from Cornell University which found women with children reduce their earning potential at the same time that men with children increase theirs?

Challenge biases. A European female CEO told me about a Pacific Island mother of four who was offered a promotion in her company. The mostly male leadership team doubted her desire and commitment to step up, particularly as she'd recently given birth.

The CEO, however, believed the woman's personal and cultural values, alongside a strong support network, would ensure she would succeed at a higher level. She was right.

Highlight role models. I have been inspired by female leaders throughout my career and encouraged by that to seek leadership positions.

I was interviewed for two senior roles, including the Trade Commissioner - Singapore, while pregnant. Male recruiting managers saw past the bump, skin colour and age.

Coaching and mentoring also help. In my case having sponsors who could advocate for my ability was useful. If you are in a position where you can celebrate successes of diverse leaders, advocate for them or contribute to their development - do so.

Be inclusive. While affirmative action can help, hiring for "cultural fit" is common. This allows a dominant culture to subsume others, often leaving minorities and women to stagnate and plateau.

A high-achieving Maori woman recalled to me her early experiences on boards. One of her board chairs would seek input from the males at the table and ignore her. The reporting metrics would have shown a Maori woman on that board, but her knowledge, skills and experience were underused.

Leaders need to be inclusive and make everyone feel welcome. They need to seek different perspectives if they want stronger solutions. And for people in the same position as this female board member - do what she did - be bold and speak up.

Finally, create a safe, agile environment. As New Zealand becomes more diverse and dependent on international trade and tourism, we need to be more thoughtful about our engagement with colleagues, customers and other stakeholders.

Team and relationship building activities that some consider fun could be intimidating or, in some cases, offensive for others. It is worth taking a moment every day, to consider such things.

Diversity is not only fair, it makes business sense. In Singapore, my male stakeholders recognised the value I added. They acknowledged that business done over beer could also be done at school pick-ups, in shopping malls, at sports.

• Ziena Jalil is a partner at SenateSHJ, a communications consultancy. ziena@senateshj.co.nz