Business is Boring

Joan Withers on employing diversity without enforcing quotas

Business is Boring is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt.

Today’s guest has broken new ground, confounded any stereotypes and excelled at every level of business. Leaving school in South Auckland with School Cert, going to be a bank teller, marrying her boyfriend and having a baby at 21. This could be the end of the public life story of many women 40 years ago. What happened instead has been a career leading some of New Zealand’s biggest media companies through some of the biggest landscape changes.

Joan Withers has been a CEO of one of the first deregulated radio stations, the CEO of Fairfax in the last glory years of newspapers, and a professional director, with twenty years of governance experience as a board member and chair. Currently the Chair at Mercury and The Warehouse and just recently stepping down from Chair at TVNZ, Joan has a new book out, A Woman’s Place, that is a life story so far and also practical career advice, stories from the frontline and thoughts on that provocative title, A Woman’s Place.

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In terms of diversity, which is a really big theme of the book and your work, we’ve gone backwards. One female CEO out of the NZX Top 50. 13% of board directors are female. That’s absolutely bananas that it’s going backwards when we have more women and more diversity across the mid ranks and the high ranks of companies, but less at the top now than five years ago. What’s going on?

It’s disappointing. Actually, the directorship number is moving upwards but very, very slowly. Having only Kate McKenzie [CEO of Chorus] on the CEO list for the NZX Top 50 is extremely disappointing. Yes, we have been better in that regard but because there are more women coming through the pipeline now I remain optimistic that those numbers are going to change. There are a lot of us working hard on a number of initiatives to try and improve that more quickly. Global Women are running breakthrough leaders courses to help in the pipeline reach their full potential. They have the Champion for Change initiative which is a whole bunch of men and women who are working on the practical aspects of improving diversity. You’ve got the Future Directors scheme, whereby a young person sits around a board table with a group of experienced directors and learns about governance firsthand, often that’s a woman.

So hopefully that will improve the stats as they come out of that process board ready. Lots of organisations are trying to figure out why some women are actually getting to a certain level and then opting out. I think the bigger companies in New Zealand are pretty universally looking at ways that they can dial in flexibility to make it easier for women who don’t want to have to make too many compromises in terms of their family situation, help them to stay the distance.

In terms of getting the diversity happening, it’s been said that if CEO pay was linked to gender diversity, it would happen overnight. Is there also a case to be made for boards? If board renumeration packages were linked to having female CEOs, would that change overnight?

I’ll be very disappointed if that happened. I fundamentally believe the CEOs I work with are doing everything in their power to make sure they do get diverse teams around them. Not only diverse in terms of gender but across the whole spectrum. I’m totally opposed to quotas because I think that it would drive pursuit just for the attainment of the metric as opposed to what we’re doing at the moment [which] is making sure we’re going as far and wide as we possibly can to find the diverse people who are eminently qualified to fill these roles. And they are out there but the recruiters have to be chastised on a regular basis because some of them still come back with the same old list.

I had to fire one recruitment agency some time ago when I was looking for a marketing oriented director and they came back with a long list that did not include one female. Now there might be some slight excuse if it was something like engineering, although there are great engineering women out there. But it just reinforced the fact, to me, that the research has to happen. And then you find amazing candidates for these jobs.

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