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Yes, we need more diversity on boards – and that isn’t anti-white men

New Zealand has a diversity problem in governance and business leadership. That is just a fact, argues Jazial Crossley.

Only 19% of NZX directors are female. Only one company on the NZX 50 currently has a woman chief executive.

This is not a New Zealand problem – just 4% of Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs. These dire stats don’t inspire our young ambitious New Zealand women to feel optimistic about their chances of getting in to governance. It tells them being a woman on a board will be a struggle because they’ll be in the minority and their success is unlikely, but putting our pipeline of future female talent off their ideas of governance could have really troubling negative impacts in the long run.

Last year, I wrote my MBA thesis on whether mentoring was a useful tool for preparing more Kiwi women for governance. I looked at the current situation, interviewed a bunch of high profile women who were already on boards, and considered the role of mentoring in developing more who have an interest in (and capability for) governance.

All kinds of diversity such as measures of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, socio-economic background, physical ability and more should be represented throughout businesses, including at leadership levels and in governance. As one of the women I interviewed for my research said, “If your boards are full of – sorry – old white men, it’s not good. That’s not diversity.”

My focus on women was just to keep the research tightly focused. It allowed it to clearly relate back to previous research in the field and respond to NZX reporting on that specific measure. That didn’t mean I think getting more women on boards is any more or less important than improving balance of all genders and other forms of diversity.

One of the women I interviewed said men don’t want to step down their own positions on boards in order to make way for a newer, more diverse generation of directors to come through. “Men certainly don’t want to give up something for women or to make room at board table for women. Now there are no more excuses of, ‘oh, women aren’t qualified’. They are, they’re here, so now what are you going to do about it?”

(It was a condition of my research that interview subjects remain anonymous, so I can’t name them.)

One interviewee said, “I dispute the concept of ‘but there’s not enough good women out there’ – that’s bullshit. There are amazing women out there. For various reasons and probably unconscious bias they are overlooked.”

Another told me the chairs of our boards, who are mainly men, just don’t care enough about diversity. “As a country we don’t care enough. If we said we’re not going to invest in these companies, we’re going to call it out all the time, they’d do something about it. Most of these companies do have at least one woman on the board because of the pressure, but they’ve done their thing of one. [Equality] on boards hasn’t happened because there is insufficient will to make it happen.”

Another who was shoulder tapped for most of her other board appointments said she suspected she was appointed to one board because of her gender. It was a male dominated board wanting to improve its diversity. “But I’m alright with that – boys have been doing that forever, boys are always giving jobs to boys. I do have the relevant skills.” Another said she got her first appointment because she was “just in front of them at the time, they needed more female directors, they thought I was capable”.  

A Māori interviewee said boards need to genuinely want someone for their skills and experience, not because they will tick a diversity box. “Do I like the idea of being the Māori woman on a board? No. I don’t want to run the risk of being a box that’s ticked. It’s very obvious when that’s happening. It’s dehumanising. It’s actually just stupid, there’s no other word for it. But it happens routinely…I always decline those opportunities.”

Women who are experienced enough to be on boards need the first board door opened for them, one woman told me. “They need to network and make it clear they’re available… There are plenty of qualified women.” Although, just saying they’re keen won’t work. As another interviewee said, “a lot of people think because they’re a woman and they’ve joined the Institute of Directors they will get on a board.” That’s not true, she said. It might fast track things, but it’s not enough – everyone in a boardroom needs to be there because they bring something valuable to the table.

One of my interviewees blamed women themselves for the lack of women on boards. It’s not that boards don’t want women or diversity “or anything like that”, she said. “In my experience it’s the fact there aren’t as many to choose from, because we as a gender just bail out of the workforce. At the first opportunity we get we’re out. I’m making mass generalisations here, but that’s my experience. The first opportunity you struggle, you’re out. A lot of people say they never made it because of unconscious bias so they didn’t get promotions… it’s not the men holding them back or not giving them opportunities, it’s a lack of resilience and confidence.”

Another interviewee said outright that some women on boards don’t help or encourage more women – the old ‘Queen Bee’ phenomenon. “Why? I don’t know. They feel special and want to keep their specialness. Terrible, isn’t it?” Yeah, it’s not great.

One woman I interviewed claimed many others see governance as an escape route. “Being a director is an important, big, interesting-sounding job. You get paid, can work part time, go to yoga and look after the kids or whatever and it’s actually nothing like that at all. A lot of women aspire to it…it’s a real trend.” Ouch. According to another of my interview subjects, it has “become quite trendy, quite cool” for ladies to be on boards. I don’t think it’s a fad – I think we’re seeing more awareness of the importance of diversity on boards. That can only be a good thing.

However, we’ve got to be more proactive, or nothing is going to change. People who recruit for and decide on appointments to boards and leadership roles are in positions of power. They have a responsibility to facilitate that change and consider diversity.

I want to see our business environment be more inclusive and fair, with opportunities for all capable people to succeed at the highest levels. That’s not a rejection of those who currently dominate leadership. It’s a call for fairer leadership with a broader range of people, more accurately representing New Zealand’s population. It’s a desire for inclusivity, not exclusivity.

So much research shows diversity in business is beneficial in many ways, including for business performance – but, c’mon, encouraging inclusion is also obviously, both socially and ethically, just the right thing to do.  

As one of my interviewees told me, “you can find women or any diversity group with the right skill sets if you look hard enough – you just have to look harder.”


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