WOMEN have long been underrepresented in New Zealand’s top tier of business, and according to the latest international research, it’s only getting worse.

Grant Thornton’s 2015 International Business Report, Women in Business: the path to leadership, showed the portion of top jobs held by women has barely changed over the past decade – increasing from 19 percent in 2004 to 22 percent today.
What’s more concerning is the number of businesses surveyed – 32 percent – which currently have no females in leadership roles. Globally, the number of women in senior management has never reached more then 24 percent.
Russia is currently leading the charge of the gender diversity debate with 40 percent of senior management roles held by women, and there has been some progress in other parts of Europe, but Japan, India and Germany remain at the bottom of the rankings.
New Zealand placed 28th out of the 35 countries surveyed for gender representation in business leadership – an all-time low since the international report commenced in 2004 and New Zealand ranked third.
Once positioned as a world leader, New Zealand’s fall from the top has been significant. Currently only 19 percent of New Zealand businesses surveyed have women in senior management roles.
Sarcha Every, director of human resource and recruitment company, Decipher Group, says there are many factors driving women out of New Zealand boardrooms.
“Parenthood and family care require women to make more sacrifices and women can often be affected by gender bias at the executive or senior management level, particularly in male-dominated industries,” she says.
“We see many women pull back from the workforce when they have children because it’s too difficult to juggle a career and family commitments. It’s also more socially accepted for a woman to make career sacrifices than a man.”
Despite this, Every says the portion of senior roles held by women vary dramatically depending on industry.
According to the report, women tend to be over-represented in service industries such as education, social services and healthcare businesses (41 percent), while leadership teams of more traditional primary industries such as manufacturing, transport, construction and real estate, mining and quarrying are overwhelmingly made up of men.
There was also a strong trend for women to work their way up to management support positions, with 29 percent of human resource positions held by women but only nine percent of CEOs.
Government consultant and horse breeder, Fiona Mules, joined the board of Hilton Haulage Transport in November last year and is the first woman in the company’s history to take on the position as an independent director.
Mules strongly advocates against the trend of having a woman on a board to simply meet an industry quota, saying diversity should be judged on a candidate’s merit, skills and experience.
“I would rather go toe-to-toe with half a dozen men and be chosen because I’ve got the right skill set, not because I’m a woman,” she says.
“If we start moving towards a goal where you’ve got to have 20 percent of your board as women, a certain ethnic group or age, then people may get on boards that shouldn’t necessarily be there, and those that earned their role based on professional merit might instead be viewed as a token. It’s a dangerous road to go down.”
Institute of Directors (IoD) acting chief executive Simon Arcus says board diversity is critical to improving business performance and maintaining a competitive and vibrant economy.
He says slow progress is being made to improve the diversity of boards in New Zealand and expects this to increase due to greater awareness and initiatives such as the Mentoring for Diversity programme.
Historically, the IoD’s Mentoring for Diversity programme targeted the gender imbalance in New Zealand boardrooms, with 80 women having completed the programme since 2011. This year the programme has expanded to embrace diversity in its broadest sense, encompassing ethnicity, age, skillset and background, in addition to gender.
Decipher Group director Sarcha Every says while many governance boards are looking to embrace gender diversity, the more strategic focus has been to recruit genuine independent directors who have the right set of skills and professional experience to offer diversity of thought.
“Research tells us that there is a positive relationship between board diversity and bottom-line financial performance, and businesses will lose out if they don’t facilitate diversity into their ranks,” she says.
“In the past we have placed women on boards but we don’t take credit for that. We work with businesses who recognise that diversity is an important issue and actively use our professional networks to put forward genuine candidates who have the right set of transferrable skills, relevant industry experience and organisational ‘fit’ to take their business to the next level.”
Every says the biggest challenge for New Zealand boards will be to embrace diversity in its entirety and come to terms with independent directors challenging the decision making process.
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The Grant Thornton International Business Report 2015 Women in business: the path to leadership,draws on 5,404 interviews with senior business leaders in 35 economies. The report finds that women’s advancement is being constrained by a number of factors from entrenched social norms and gender bias to parenthood and archaic business practices. To read the full report visit:http://www.grantthornton.global/en/insights
Decipher Group is a Christchurch-based recruitment and human resource company established in 2008. It offers governance and executive recruitment support, human resource consulting and outplacement support to boards, chief executives and senior management teams.
Decipher Group recruits directors for some of New Zealand’s top tier businesses, and has recently placed several high profile candidates on governance boards in the agriculture, property, transport and tourism industry sectors.

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