by Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes
International Women’s Day is just around the corner as I write this. You know what that means, don’t you? It means any reporting of the events held to celebrate the day will almost certainly kick off with the indisputable fact that New Zealand took a giant, world-leading stride for women’s rights in 1893. That date, we’ll all be reminded, was when women here gained the vote, ahead of all other countries.

Big tick. Let’s rest on those 1893 laurel leaves once more, shall we? If we all sit on them, no one will be able to see how threadbare they’ve grown.

Gone quiet

Have you noticed that no one’s really talking about women’s role in leadership in our society and enterprises any more? It’s crept up on us insidiously over the last couple of years.

Here are a few markers:

  • The 25 Per Cent Club, launched with a hiss and roar in 2012 by a group of influential CEOs and chief executives at private, publicly-listed and multinational companies, has quietly folded its tent and gone away. Since some time in 2014, its website has been “under maintenance”. Its aim had been to push to 25% women on NZ’s top NZX boards by 2015.
  • The New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation hasn’t been produced since its 2012 edition, when Dr Judy McGregor completed her term as Equal Employment Rights Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission. Since then, we have been without a comprehensive time series of women’s progress across key sectors, and international researchers have lost a broad and reliable source of information on the position of women in our society. What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get talked about.
  • These days, the hot topic among HR professionals is diversity. Women are seen as one aspect of that, but not one that warrants the attention it once received. Ethnicity rose in popularity as a fresh angle on diversity for a while, and right now the big interest seems to be in strategies to engage and develop youth to stop them choosing to go overseas or become self-employed.

Those other aspects of diversity all have their importance and role to play, but I’d argue women are different because of the sheer numbers involved. Women remain the low hanging fruit, and arguably the more inclusive group to target.

Job done?

Perhaps we hear less about women these days because the job is done? Alas, no. What’s happened is that it’s grown harder to measure progress for women (patchy data), and harder to get heard (less interest).

If you’re a young working woman, chances are you’ve found you’re expected to manage your career largely by yourself with relatively little guidance. For many, that includes figuring out how and where to find mentoring. If you’re a lower-mid level manager, you’re running so hard to get the job done, you’ve little time left to nurse your career, even though you know what you ‘ought’ to be doing. And if you’re more senior, you’re running very hard too, and probably getting less encouragement than before to reach a hand down to help up other women. It all adds up to a still-challenging environment in which to get a career to take root and flourish. And that shows up in the data.


Focusing only on women’s participation in senior private and public sector roles, I’ve compiled a time series of New Zealand data.

[table id=1 /]

Note: the Census of Women’s participation measured the NZX Top 100. The NZX data measures issuers on the NZX Main Board (xxcl overseas companies). The count of companies covered by the NZX diversity data ranges from 109 in 2013 to 125 in 2015.
** compiled by Dr McGregor using the Women’s Census methodology, and reported in the Women’s Studies Journal

The picture above is one of slight, steady progress. In fact, it looks as if women’s participation is increasing at an average of two points a year, in a similar pattern to Australia’s. If this continues, then, to reach the magic “one in three” at which level women no longer look like tokens, will take until 2023. That doesn’t sound too bad, actually.

If it happens.

[table id=2 /]

In senior leadership teams (“officers”) of the companies reporting to the NZX, however, we see one step forward and another back. The received wisdom is that this pool of women is the pipeline that primes the Boardroom pump, therefore this performance could signal a future slowdown in the Board statistics.

[table id=3 /]

The percentage of women on State Sector boards has remained static for the last eight years in the 41-42% range. The low forties is two and a half times better than the top private sector boards achieve, of course, but it’s short of the original 50% target set in the 1980s. Indeed, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in 2012 reset the target to 45%. Why? I’m fairly sure that if our New Zealand rowers decided they’d learn to compete on a shorter course to make it easier, they’d stop winning medals.


One reason we shout about 1893 on International Women’s Day is that back then we were leading from the front. Now, not so much. Compare these stock exchange board stats:

  • In France, where they’ve brought in quotas, they’re just under 30% women. Yep, the French.
  • In the UK, gender diversity on the FTSE 100 finally hit the 25% mark during 2015.
  • On Australia’s ASX 200 boards at the end of 2015, 21.7% were women.
  • In Canada, 18 months ago, they were running at 20.8% women

Who are we well ahead of? India. Japan. Hong Kong. None of those are countries that can boast significant firsts or even seconds in women’s rights.

Does anyone care?

It can be hard to tell what New Zealand thinks about the state of its working women and their contribution to leadership in our society. The NZX and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs who collect and present the local data collated above provide plain vanilla statements of fact with zero editorial. Do they think that the ekeing out of a further half point or so of participation is cause for celebration? Neither of them, it seems, has the ovaries to say what they think about the trends. Why not?

We can tell you what the current Equal Employment Opportunities commissioner, Jackie Blue, thinks about women on boards in this country [Stuff January 14 2016]

“The commission wanted it to be mandatory for all NZX main board listed companies to establish and disclose their gender and diversity policies, including measurable objectives and implementation in their annual reports, she said.

A consistent theme that has emerged in our own and others [sic] research is that to bring women through to senior management level requires clear, committed leadership by the chief executive and positive affirmative policies such as mentoring and leadership programmes. It does not happen by osmosis”.

We’d agree. We can also tell you that at Professionelle we care about women’s position in business and social leadership, and we try to put our effort where our words are. Right now, for example, we’re establishing a mentoring scheme between young women and more experienced career women and are grateful for Simpson Grierson’s generous sponsorship.

Pale ambition, glacial gains

We have to stop harking back to the glory days of 1893. It reinforces our innate belief in New Zealand as a ‘fair go’ country and feeds the wishful thought that, as far as women’s equality in our society goes, we are home and hosed.

Yes, it’s good that, for example, we have a smaller gender pay gap than a number of our peers, but that doesn’t mean New Zealand women should pull their heads in and be grateful. If we are to regain the spirit of 1893 our society needs to be aiming—and clamouring – for a zero pay gap.

It’s heartening to see more people willing to label themselves as feminists again, and the He for She campaign that the Human Rights Commission launched here last November. But what we also need are people who are grumpy about the situation and prepared to say so, and keep saying so, to hold it at the forefront of our collective mind.

O, come back Dr McGregor, with your swingeing attacks on the status quo and the often namby-pamby ambitions for women’s future participation:

Women are being short-changed by those setting targets on their behalf. There is a bleak picture of pale ambition for women’s progress in New Zealand as a result.

The pattern that can be chronicled in New Zealand since 2004 is one of glacial incremental gain.

She’s right, you know.

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