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Kiwi businesswomen need to step it up

By Shannon Williams, Fri 6 Mar 2015
FYI, this story is more than a year old

New Zealand businesswomen need to be more assertive if they want to arrest the ‘alarming drop’ in their numbers in senior management roles in New Zealand, according to the latest research from Grant Thornton.

Figures released from the Grant Thornton International Business Report (IBR) to mark International Women’s Day, which lands on Sunday 8 March 2015, show that New Zealand women are going backwards rapidly on several fronts when it comes to senior management and boardroom appointments.

Stacey Davies, partner, Privately Held Business at Grant Thornton New Zealand, says that New Zealand has dropped to 28th place in a league table of 35 countries surveyed compared with 15th out of 45 countries surveyed in 2014.

"In 2004 New Zealand was ranked third in the world of the countries surveyed, so in a little over a decade we have gone from being world leaders to trailing near the bottom. It’s concerning that the trend is accelerating having dropped 13 places in one year," Davies says.

Currently, only 19% of New Zealand businesses surveyed have women in senior management positions - an all-time low since the survey started in 2004 and 9% below New Zealand’s long run average of 28%.

"The rate of decline is extremely worrying,” says Davies. “Thirty-seven per cent of New Zealand businesses surveyed don’t have any women in senior management. This number has steadily increased over the years from 26% in 2012 and is higher than the global average of 32%.

“New Zealand has the dubious honour of being in the top 12 countries with no women in senior management.”

She continues, "But why? It has nothing to do with the level of education - survey data shows that women have no problem holding their own when it comes to earning the qualifications to get them in the door.

"The results from last year showed a worrying downward trend and perhaps we are now seeing that come to fruition,” she says. “There is also potentially a perception amongst women that if they work hard they will be recognised and rewarded for their work. This is just not eventuating.”

Davies says, "As Sheryl Sandberg writes in her book Lean In, ‘Hard work and results should be recognised by others, but when they aren't, advocating for oneself becomes necessary’ ".

Davies says women can’t just sit back and wait to be invited to the top table, they need to invite themselves or push to be invited.

"In my own career, and seeing the same in many others over the years, I have found that you have to put your hand up for the stretch assignments, take a step (or sometimes a giant leap) outside your comfort zone and be your own best advocate as you simply cannot rely on someone else to do it for you."

The study also looked at perceived barriers to achieving a position in senior management.

"This is where it gets interesting. Sixty nine per cent of New Zealand women don’t see any barriers to advancing into senior roles,” Davies says. “However, this declines to 55% when you add the male portion of the sample into the mix, so there are obviously some barriers and women aren’t aware of them. Thirty three per cent of our Australian female counterparts feel that there are barriers to women entering senior roles.

"None of the New Zealand women surveyed perceived a gender bias, however 7% of the male sample saw a gender bias.

“The global average of women who feel there is gender bias is 19%, which is the same in Australia. Perhaps this suggests some element of naivety in New Zealand around gender bias,” she says.

“A Google search for ‘gender bias in the workplace’ brings up more than 1.2M hits in 0.29 seconds. There is clearly a lot of data around this.”

Davies believes the issue of gender bias in an interesting one, as a lot of it probably goes by unnoticed.

"Research has shown that women’s leadership styles and mistakes are judged more harshly than men’s by their peers and that men are promoted based on potential, while women are promoted based on past accomplishments,” she explains.

"The bias can be covert from the questions asked in interviews, to subtly undermining women’s abilities by calling them ‘girls’. Similarly, many of the female leaders spoken to in the survey wanted to be known not as female business leaders, but simply business leaders, successful in their own right," says Davies.

"Twenty-three per cent of New Zealand women surveyed see the lack of female role models as a barrier. Given the relatively small number of women in senior management, and in fact declining numbers, this result is not surprising.”

The question of introducing a quota system to guarantee a percentage of women in senior management or board positions was also surveyed. In New Zealand, support for quotas is 40%, down from where it was two years ago at 44%, and still behind the global average.

"The business world remains broadly split on the introduction of quotas - 47% globally support the idea, up from 37% two years ago. They may not be the correct solution in every country, and I have mixed feelings about quotas, but given the absence of progress perhaps legislation can create the ‘step change’ that is needed to facilitate future female advancement,” Davies says.

"It is well proven that greater diversity in decision making produces better outcomes. If an economy is only using half of its most talented people then it immediately cuts its growth potential,” she says.

“Businesses need to think about how they access different skillsets. Diversity leads to better decisions in all walks of life. Business growth comes from diversity of opinion. By thinking and acting differently from the competition, businesses can unlock their potential for growth."

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