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Study: A decade before we see boardroom equality

Men are still dominating the boards of New Zealand's top companies, with new research showing progress towards gender and ethnic diversity amongst leadership has stalled.

The latest annual New Zealand Census of Women on Boards released today shows the slow progress of recent years continues, with boards of the top 100 publicly listed companies still overwhelmingly male and Pākehā.

The proportion of women increased 1.8% points from last year and now sits just above the quarter mark at 25.9%.

“I’ve been counting boardroom composition for 22 years and it has only gradually improved so that men now outnumber women by three to one,” says AUT Professor Judy McGregor, the study’s founder.

“At this rate it will still be more than a decade before boardroom equality is a reality.”

The latest census was carried out by Professor McGregor, Simplicity managing director Sam Stubbs and barrister and researcher Cat MacLennan.

It names 11 companies that have no female directors, as well recognising seven that have gender equality.

As an addition this year, companies were also asked for the ethnic makeup of their boards. Only 44 replied, with most not providing the requested information, citing excuses such as privacy and human rights concerns.

However, photos, biographies and names indicate that the boards of the top 100 NZX companies remain overwhelmingly Pākehā.

MacLennan says the lack of ethnic diversity was shocking.

“Of Aotearoa’s population, 14.9% is Māori, 11.8% is Asian and 7.4% is Pasifika,” she says.

“The fact that Māori, Asian and Pasifika people are so completely underrepresented on NZX’s top 100 boards is an indictment," says MacLennan.

Stubbs says the largest 49 New Zealand companies (which Simplicity invests in) are on formal notice to fully diversify. He re-stated that Simplicity will engage in formal shareholder action regarding director appointments and retention by 2022 if companies have not achieved full diversity in governance by then.

“Diversity is critical to KiwiSaver returns. Extensive research shows that if companies aren’t drawing from the deepest and widest talent pool, they will underperform,” he says.

“Last year we said that New Zealand companies have five years to fully diversify, which allows for normal board rotation. The clock is ticking. Companies should be actively implementing their diversity policies, and be complete by 2022," says Stubbs.

“By then we expect to be significant shareholders in all of New Zealand’s largest listed companies. If their governance isn’t fully diversified by then, as shareholders we will start making it happen.”

A positive finding of this year’s snapshot was there has been a large increase in the number of top 100 companies with visible diversity policies since 2018 – from 76 to 92.

“However, the lack of progress in gender and ethnic diversity raises the question of whether companies see creating diversity policies as an easy alternative to actually implementing diversity,” the report says.