Gender equality should be celebrated

17:00, Jul 23 2012

Old habits die, it seems. Particularly when it comes to discrimination against women. Doesn't seem to matter how obvious the bias, how dramatic the inequity, or how counter-productive the results, it's not hard to find chaps who still believe a penis is some sort of membership card.  Or to put it another way, that not having a penis counts as a disqualifying defect. A history of subjugating women? Whatever could be wrong with that?

That many business folk are still grappling with the question is fascinating. You might have thought, by now, the last remnants of the old boys networks would have realised the error of their ways. Learnt to hold their tongues. Especially after former employers' boss Alisdair Thompson's take on women in the workplace. Even the most stubborn of chauvinists seemed to acknowledge the game was up then. That the chicks had come home to roost.

Yet still, some of the old schoolers are hanging on, opposing measures to promote gender equality with deliberately phoney arguments and baseless scaremongering. Recent attacks on a New Zealand Stock Exchange initiative, requiring all listed companies to disclose the number of women on their boards and in senior management positions, only offers more evidence of that. Makes you wonder what these blokes are really scared of.

First there was Gryphon Governance Consultants director Denis Mowbray, who wanted us all to know that having more women on boards was no guarantee of success. Then there was governance researcher Richard Baker, who said a gender mix was no guarantee of diversity. Talk about missing the point. As did Omega Talent chief executive Justin Treagus this week with a similarly specious column in the New Zealand Herald.

From what I've read, the NZX initiative isn't about ensuring a quota of women. It's about encouraging equal opportunity, not equal representation. It's about helping to break down age-old prejudices against women, raising awareness of issues such as fairness, and better utilising resources that some women bring to the table. Those who rubbish it on the basis that an equal ratio of women to men guarantees nothing are guilty of raising spurious objections.

What they won't want to acknowledge is that leaving in place customs and traditions that have historically discriminated against women is bad for business, bad for decision-making and bad for everyone. We know this. As Women's Affairs acting chief executive Kim Ngarimu said earlier this month, British and Australian listed companies are already required to report on gender diversity. The NZX move only brings New Zealand up to speed.

Rather than whinging about being dragged into the 21st century, opponents of the enterprise should be thanking their lucky stars a stronger medicine hasn't been prescribed. Several other countries have opted for mimimum quotas in the boardroom as a form of positive affirmation. Their rationale? They reckon without government intervention, progress would take too long. That without being forced to accept equal opportunity, men would never buy into it.

Mr Baker tells us that companies aren't democracies and that they aren't required to be socially responsible. As if we needed reminding of that. What's also true, however, is that companies operating within a democracy are regulated by laws formed by the governments of the people. Whether Mr Baker likes it or not, we all have a say in the gender debate, however indirectly. Anyone who doesn't agree with that should check with Alisdair Thompson.

Michael Barnett, the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust, made the point the other day that far from criticising the NZX action, New Zealanders should be celebrating the breakthrough as a significant step towards righting an indefensible wrong. It's hard to disagree. One small step for man, one giant leap for womankind. And the absurd arguments of those who oppose it? That should only leave us more feeling more convinced.

» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
» Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardboock.

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