Women can help themselves up the ladder

21:52, Mar 20 2014

A roomful of chief financial officers is a very blokey affair.

Don't get me wrong, these are smart and high-achieving blokes, and not devoid of a sense of humour. They found jokes about how they were a more fun crowd than the chief information officers very amusing.

But after all these years of talk about promoting women up the professional ranks, it's hard to walk into such an industry event and not sigh at the sea of grey suits.

It was the CFO Awards, the annual outing for New Zealand's top corporate bean counters.

Some of them are female of course - Telecom CFO Jolie Hodson looked particularly smart in a bright tangerine jacket. There just aren't many of them.

Having said that, the most important award of the night went to Jan Dawson, the recently retired chairwoman and chief executive of accountancy firm KPMG New Zealand, and now an independent director.


She received the Outstanding Contribution to Finance and Business gong, which puts her in good company. Previous winners include former ANZ Bank chief executive Sir John Anderson and General Motors CFO Chris Liddell.

Dawson made an intriguing acceptance speech. She thanked her KPMG colleagues for their unwavering support throughout her career, and said she had never been aware of this thing called the glass ceiling. Until she hit it.

Dawson declines to go into the details, except to say that it made her think deeply about why she'd never considered it a problem for women before.

These days she is a member of Global Women and the 25 Percent Group, both aimed at boosting the numbers of women at the top of New Zealand organisations. She's committed to the cause of achieving greater boardroom and executive diversity, not just of gender.

The numbers remain stubbornly poor. The NZX's first annual gender diversity statistics out earlier this year showed 12 per cent of listed company directors are women, while 19 per cent of company officers are female.

Like most people, Dawson has her theories about why women's progress into the upper echelons of business and government has been so achingly slow.

She believes women have more options now, ironically.

"They're opting to not be as driven as maybe we were, in terms of trying to run a family, trying to have a big corporate role.

"There are a lot more women entrepreneurs, because you can be more flexible."

Employers wanting to retain and promote good female staff do need to take work/life balance into account, but it's a two-way street, Dawson says.

She tells the story of herself and three female peers at KPMG. She was made a partner while pregnant and took a few months' maternity leave. Another woman married late and didn't have children.

A third left work when she became a mother and chose not to return. The fourth took time out while she had her family, kept herself up to speed with training courses and the like, came back part-time and was eventually made a partner, albeit 10 years later than if she hadn't taken a break.

Dawson says this shows how it can work. Companies need to keep women on maternity leave engaged, but they in turn have a responsibility to maintain their skills.

It is entirely reasonable to promote people who've done the hard yards over those who have spent less time at the coalface. It is also reasonable to expect that your workplace value will have diminished if you have spent five years out of it.

Some women would do much to help themselves by asking not what the employer can do for them, but what they can do for the employer.

Fairfax Media