Gender rule 'watered down'

AMANDA BEST AND MICHAEL BERRY
Last updated 10:41 06/07/2012

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Women's groups have slammed the upcoming requirement for New Zealand publicly listed companies to report on the number of women they have at the top, saying the rule has been watered-down and doesn't go far enough.

The NZX announced on Wednesday listed issuers will have to provide a breakdown of gender composition at executive team and board level in their annual reports, and compare it to the previous year.

It will also evaluate companies' formal diversity policies, if they have one, but stops short of making it compulsory. The rule will apply to NZX main board listed issuers with a balance date on or after December 31, 2012.

Chair of the Global Women organisation and former prime minister Dame Jenny Shipley welcomed the rule, but described it as a missed opportunity to match the progress Australia has achieved in gender diversity through making formal diversity policies mandatory.

The ASX introduced diversity reporting two years ago, and a third of all new board appointments to ASX200 in the past year were women, up from just five per cent in 2009.

Council of Women of New Zealand president Elizabeth Bang called the NZX rule a half-step because it didn't make having a diversity policy mandatory.

''It should quickly become clear whether or not businesses are willing to take the necessary action to boost the number of women on boards.''

The New Zealand Shareholders Association has also criticised the NZX for covering only gender in the diversity listing rule.

Other factors surrounding diversity should be considered, including culture, independence, skill level and experience, said NZSA director Gayatri Jaduram.

Experienced company director Joanna Perry who is on a number of boards including Genesis Energy, Trade Me, and Kiwi Income Property, also said it was a shame the diversity policy covered only gender and didn't go as far as the ASX.

''It would have been nice to have us absolutely consistent. The ASX requires you to have a policy on diversity and if not, you need to explain why. The NZX is basically just saying if you have a diversity policy, tell us about it. I think there is a risk of tokenism.''

But Mighty River Power (MRP) chair Joan Withers, who is part of the 25 Percent Group which aims to increase female participation on New Zealand boards to 25 per cent by 2015, said the rule was positive and would raise awareness about gender diversity.

ASX and NZX-listed New Zealand Oil and Gas, which has no women on its board and executive team, introduced a diversity policy last year when the Australian rules were implemented.

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The company recognised diversity in its many forms but had not specifically targeted women when hiring, said spokesman Chris Roberts

''It is certainly true there are very few female geologists, geophysicists or petroleum engineers. For that core aspect of our business, it is very male dominated across the world,'' he said.

Rick Hellings, managing director of NZX-listed retailer Smiths City, said he would be surprised if New Zealand companies suddenly started recruiting more women onto boards because of a reporting requirement.

The company would not write up a gender policy and he believed the act of creating one was an indictment on a company's decision making.

''Any company that needs a gender policy probably needs to review their appointment policies in general.''

His company was gender-neutral and looked for skills the board needed regardless of where they were found, he said.

Hellings said he was surprised that female directors had jumped to a third of all appointments across the Tasman since Australia introduced diversity reporting two years ago.

''I would have thought, in this day and age, best practice was more
widespread than that.''

The company had had three ''incredibly-talented'' women on its board, he said.

Less than one-tenth of directors on New Zealand's top 100 listed companies are women, according to Women's Affairs Ministry figures.

The proportion of female executives in the same companies is 21 per cent.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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