Why company boards need 'girl power'

KATIE MILNE
Last updated 11:49 27/12/2012

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OPINION: Earlier this year, the "25 per cent group" was formed. It sounded like another occupy movement, because its objective is having women occupy a quarter of all board seats by 2015.

Having female board members is indisputably good for the bottom line.

Recently, I read a Credit Suisse Research Institute report analysing the Gender diversity and corporate performance of 2400 global companies. In the past six years, companies with female directors averaged 14 per cent net income growth, compared with 10 per cent for those with none, it found.

The 25 per cent group is wisely about voluntary targets instead of regulation. I want to get to the top table under my own steam rather than because I have mammary glands. As we know, women make up half the population, but have been unrepresented in public life until the latter half of the past century.

That is when "girl power" broke out, helped by the roles and responsibilities thrust upon us in wartime.

While women were more visible, they were less so at the top table, including at Federated Farmers. Yes, we had the women's division, but it is only as Rural Woman New Zealand that the old women's division has flourished. Throughout my time in Federated Farmers, I must say that I have never encountered a farmer who looked down at me as some upstart "sheila".

To give Federated Farmers its due, it is more of a meritocracy than I see locally or abroad, including that most politically correct of places: government. What counts in farming is personality and mana, as well as effort and skill.

In 2011, Jeanette Maxwell broke our glass ceiling at Federated Farmers by becoming its first elected female board member. It speaks volumes that she didn't care, because it was incidental to being elected as the chairwoman of our Meat & Fibre industry group. It is one thing to break a glass ceiling, but another to shatter it.

WHILE United States President Barack Obama broke a different ceiling by being elected to the Oval Office, the real test came in November when he became the first black man re-elected as president.

While not in the same league as President Obama, I followed Ms Maxwell as the second woman to sit on the federation's seven-person board.

In the space of 12 months, Federated Farmers went from having no women board members to two. In percentage terms, we went from 0 to 29 per cent and by mid-2012 too. Yet, like those financial disclosures read at breakneck speed, the number of women on Federated Farmers' board will go up or down "according to ability".

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I do not know whether we will have more or fewer women on Federated Farmers' board by 2015, the 25 per cent group's target year, but I do know gender will play no part.

That has not stopped the lovers of red tape at the European Commission from adopting a draft directive in November, requiring 40 per cent of non-executive board positions to be filled by women by 2020. Malaysia went a step further, requiring that 30 per cent of public company directors must be women by this time next year.

Regulation is a twin-edged sword when the real culprit is cultural.

Forcing women onto boards as gender politics means that while all board members are equal, some will be more equal than others.

There is a strata running through almost any board made up of the old hands and the newbies, breathing through their noses until they learn the ropes. Forcing things risks creating an inner board and an outer board - one that ticks all the right boxes, but still denies women that vital step forward.

In this respect, farming seems more of a meritocracy than many people give it credit for. Programmes like the Agri- Woman's Development Trust and the Dairy Woman's Network mean the primary industries seem to be in the vanguard.

The real change to board composition won't come from regulation but through performance, as Credit Suisse found out. Women also need to stand up and make things happen.

Katie Milne is the West Coast provincial president of Federated Farmers.

- The Dominion Post

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