Wanted: Diverse boardrooms

TAMLYN STEWART
Last updated 07:23 19/11/2012
Janice Fredric
JANICE FREDRIC: Chief executive of Duncan Cotterill.
Ruth Richardson
RUTH RICHARDSON: Chairwoman of Syft Technologies. Other directorships include Synlait, NZ Merino and Jade.
Sue Sheldon
SUE SHELDON: Chairwoman of Chorus and director of Contact Energy.
Dame Jenny Shipley
DAME JENNY SHIPLEY: Chairwoman of the Financial Services Council. Directorships include Genesis Power.
Charlotte Walshe
CHARLOTTE WALSHE: Director of Enable Services Limited and chief executive of Dynamic Controls.
Mary Devine
MARY DEVINE: The first woman and the first non-family member to take over as managing director of Ballantynes. Other directorships include McKenzie & Willis and IAG.
Peri Drysdale
PERI DRYSDALE: Founder of Snowy Peak and Untouched World.

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Trying to find women in a South Island boardroom is a bit like trying to find men in a sewing circle. But with new stock exchange rules requiring listed companies to report on diversity on the board could a new lineup be on a few corporate wish lists this Christmas? Or do the old boys just want more Old Spice?

Duncan Cotterill chief executive Janice Fredric has just been awarded the Institute of Directors Canterbury branch Aspiring Director Award.

A member of the Institute for about 13 years, she sought the award mainly because of the 12-month internship that goes with it.

It's the chance to sit on the board of one of Christchurch City Holdings' subsidiary boards as an observer for a year. The company is electricity firm Orion's subsidiary Connetics.

"It's a really good step up, and some increased awareness amongst the local Institute of Directors that you've been identified as someone who has got potential."

Fredric has done stints already on the board of Duncan Cotterill, Team Canterbury Netball Ltd and YHA NZ and is trustee of the CPIT Foundation.

Plenty of women are being appointed to sporting and charitable organisations, but coveted seats at the table of large commercial boards elude them.

She is leaving Duncan Cotterill at the end of the year to try and break into the bigger league directorships and project work. The award was good timing.

"I'm hoping the increasing awareness of the value women add to boards will fit with my career change as well."

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It was "always a bit of a mystery" as to how people were identified for commercial boards.

"It's still a little bit of a case of who you know and there are increasing numbers of women and more initiatives to identify women and be proactive in getting them on boards . . ."

As part of the award, Fredric will have access to a mentor.

"I'm really going to use that person to guide me as to what experience I need, what I need to be doing and who I need to be talking to and put in the hard yards I need to get on the boards I want to."

So will she have an uphill battle to break into an 'old boys club' or is that just a thing of the past?

At the end of last month, the NZX confirmed rule changes due to come into effect on December 1 which will mean companies listed on the main sharemarket board must include a breakdown of men and women on their boards and in management, and, if they have a formal diversity policy, an evaluation of their performance.

NZX chairman Andrew Harmos says international research shows diversity in management and governance helped improve company performance.

Women's Affairs Ministry figures show that 9.3 per cent of directors on the boards of New Zealand's top 100 listed companies are women and the number of women in management is 21 per cent.

The Press's research into the 20 largest listed companies' boards in the South Island shows only about nine of the 109 total board seats are currently held by women.

New Zealand Shareholders' Association Canterbury chairperson Robin Harrison says the representation of women on boards is "not very high, either nationally or regionally" and he was not aware of any dramatic change in female representation in the last couple of years.

So is there an "old boys club" in Canterbury boardrooms?

"I suspect there is some truth in that but the companies are likely to deny it," Harrison says.

There seemed to be "some reluctance to innovate in terms of extending board membership into greater diversity," he says.

"They'll all likely deny it but the appearance is a cabal that works to self-perpetuate."

In the association's submission on the NZX rule about reporting gender diversity, it said a diversity rule should not be limited to gender.

Having a "diverse" board and senior management team would achieve, among other things, "broad thinking and views". Having younger people and more women at board and senior management level would remove the risk of "group think".

"For too long public company boards have been dominated by predominantly men from similar backgrounds and age running the risk of encouraging a "group think" approach and ultimately poor governance."

Too few women but not an old boys' club

The New Zealand Shareholders' Association is walking the talk - it has three women on its own board, sourced through the Ministry of Women's Affairs.

New Zealand Shareholders Association chairman John Hawkins says the standard of women candidates put forward by the ministry was "quite stunning". But he stresses diversity is not just about gender, it is about the right balance of skills around the table.

Untouched World founder Peri Drysdale is frequently asked to be a director on boards of other companies. The invitations come from all over the country, keen to tap her branding, marketing and sustainability skills. She has declined the invitations due to her workload and the amount of travelling she already does with her own company.

Drysdale says she knows women directors who have served on local boards and has not heard complaints of an old boys' network.

"'We've got a pool of expertise down here and when you're putting together a board you want the best expertise."

So how will having a few women around the table make a difference in the running of a company?

"Fearlessness", professional director Ruth Richardson says. And Canterbury women have a wealth of it.

"There is some serious female governance bench strength in Canterbury."

Richardson reels off a string of names - Sue Sheldon, Sue Suckling, Mary Devine, Dame Margaret Bazley, Juliet McLean, Dame Jenny Shipley, Vicky Buck, Jo Appleyard.

"My long experience in supposedly conservative Canterbury is that women have always been regarded as serious players."

Richardson herself is chair of KiwiNet, Jade, Syft and Pacific private equity development fund KULA, and a director of NZ Merino and Synlait.

A prospective director, irrespective of gender, needs integrity, courage, good judgment, capacity and collegiality, as well as strategic and analytical competencies, communication and financial skills, Richardson says.

"For my part the thing that women most bring to the board table is a fearlessness."

"We tend not to be captured by the status quo, and represent a breaking of the mould."

Women have a willingness to take the initiative, the confidence to be a distinctive presence on a board, and a willingness to show courage under fire, which add value to corporate governance."Women don't easily succumb to groupthink and will - in my experience - want to push a cause they see as important even if for the moment it may be unpopular."

In New Zealand generally, it is "a time of change", Ballantynes managing director Mary Devine says.

Among New Zealand companies generally there was a greater awareness now that diversity on boards was really important, she says.

Data showed women added value to boards.

"Now our challenge is ensuring we've got a capable pipeline of women in New Zealand that we can nurture to develop into governance roles in New Zealand."

Why doesn't New Zealand have more women on corporate boards?

"There's a lot of the anecdotal evidence that [for New Zealand as a whole] it's been very much more of a closed network.

"Certainly that has been one of the issues in New Zealand."

Devine is a member of Global Women, a network of 150 top Kiwi businesswomen that aims to attract more women into business leadership roles.

One of the questions the organisation is looking at is how to nurture some of the new leaders starting to present themselves locally in Christchurch, to be part of the rebuild, Devine says.

Fellow Global Women member professional director and Chorus chairwoman Sue Sheldon says the question was what was New Zealand doing about diversity at national level.

Asking how difficult it was for women to secure directorships in Canterbury was too narrow a question. Global Women was leading a collaboration of corporates and business organisations focussed on diversity as a whole, not just gender.

"It's hard for everyone. You could ask blokes the same question."

Sheldon says the reason why there aren't more women at board level is a function of both the breadth and depth of skills required but it probably also says something about companies' recruitment processes.

They hadn't necessarily been very deep and wide.

Statistics showed there had not been much change in diversity at board level in the last couple of years.

"None of the statistical information that I've seen moves us forward."

"That's really why Global Women are focussed on developing this initiative and collaboration so we can really start to move the dial on the diversity front right across organisations in New Zealand."

- The Press

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