The business case for leveraging female talent to create a competitive advantage has been proven time and time again, yet almost halfway through the second decade of the 21 century the goal of meaningful diversity in our boards and corporate executive teams remains as elusive as ever.
It was only a few years ago that New Zealand was in the unique position of having a female Prime Minister, Governor General, Leader of the Opposition and Attorney General all at the same time.
This, combined with the fact that we were the first country to give women the vote, is why possibly New Zealand is perceived to be a very progressive country when it comes to providing equal opportunities for women.
But when I look around the executive teams and boards of our largest organisations today, I have to say I’m disappointed that New Zealand business appears to have lost some of its early momentum. Because, despite all the research and evidence proving that companies with higher percentages of women in their leadership perform better financially, the highest levels of corporate New Zealand continue to be a largely male dominated domain.
And the news doesn’t get any better when it comes to equal pay. The reality is that the gender pay gap and lack of women in senior roles on boards and executive teams in New Zealand is having a negative impact on our performance and productivity. The strong evidence is that having women in senior roles improves your economic performance. A report by Goldman Sachs concluded that New Zealand’s economic output could rise by 10% if women’s labour and talent were fully tapped.
In my view there are a few key areas that need to be addressed in order to improve female representation at the highest levels of corporate New Zealand.
Firstly, it’s important to frame diversity as a serious strategic issue, not just a problem to be solved by HR. By elevating diversity to an executive management level, companies are better able to give it the appropriate focus and in turn marshal the necessary resources to break down the barriers holding women back. If I had to list one factor that, in my experience, makes the difference between success and failure it is executive sponsorship at the highest levels. Only when senior leaders commit themselves to gender diversity and challenge old forms of behaviour at every opportunity, is meaningful change going to occur.
Secondly, appropriate and achievable targets need to be put in place around diversity. This is absolutely what drives real business change. If a key component of executive and management performance evaluation is improving their diversity metrics, those metrics do improve.
Thirdly diversity considerations should be instilled into the corporate HR and recruitment processes, particularly the early identification of female leadership talent combined with thoughtful targets that push women into the consideration set for key roles. There are some simple processes that can be put in place to get the ball rolling without enormous cost and effort. For example, one of the things we have introduced at ASB is a policy whereby interviews for senior roles for female candidates must be conducted with at least one female interviewer. In this way, it’s possible to reduce any unconscious bias in the interview process to provide more of a level playing field for women. And I would argue that this sort of initiative is not only relevant for large organisations like ASB. Many of the smaller businesses and operations that dominate the New Zealand economy would also benefit by adopting a more inclusive approach to recruiting women.
The prize in solving the diversity challenge is a big one for New Zealand businesses. In terms of female executive engagement, New Zealand currently lags behind our global competitors and we are failing to optimise the economic benefits that diversity brings.
Clearly there are solutions that legislation and regulation can also offer but the first step needs to be a personal commitment to address diversity by the men and women with the ability to influence executive appointments and assist with success.
It’s time for us to step up. – Barbara Chapman