I am woman, hear me roar

MATT RILKOFF
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2013

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Thirty years ago Elaine Gill sat down for a job interview at a New Plymouth law firm and discovered her job was already taken.

"I went on about my qualifications and experience and one of them said "Well, we have got one already.

"It took me a while to realise he meant they already had a token woman in the firm. It made me bloody angry."

It wasn't said in jest, but that archaic attitude did little to check Ms Gill's career. She went on to become, among many other things, chairwoman of the TSB Bank, and says a lot has changed in the ensuing three decades.

A report to the Ministry of Women's Affairs in January concludes the same. Women in New Zealand are now more able, and more likely, to be economically independent today than at any time over the last 30 years.

Women of all ages are also now more qualified than men and young women are obtaining qualifications at a higher rate than men.

Against this background the Labour Party earlier this month considered banning men from standing for some seats to ensure half of its MPs were women by 2017. The idea was quickly dropped, but not before it was widely rubbished as both insulting to women and New Zealanders in general.

"But I do think there is still a long way to go," Ms Gill says. "You just have to look at Parliament. There are 39 women for 121 seats."

There is no arguing with the numbers. Women are under-represented in government at both national and regional level. Taranaki is no exception. Its three general electorate MPs are men, though the Te tai Hauauru Maori MP is Tariana Turia. Out of 48 councillors on the three district councils and single regional council, just 11 are women. And while the chief executives of the New Plymouth and Stratford councils are women, 72 of the 78 local authorities are headed by men.

And it's not getting any better. In 2003, 31 per cent of top leadership roles in New Zealand government and organisations were held by women, the fourth-highest in the 36 OECD countries. By 2009 it had slipped to 17th.

In 2010, 40 per cent of senior management positions in the public service sector were held by women, but they held just five out of 35 chief executive posts.

Massey University Management School head Professor Sarah Leberman says getting more women into senior roles comes down to making the professional environment more appealing.

"It's about creating spaces that value the contributions both men and women can make in terms of making a really good organisation," she says.

As idealistic as that sounds, having women on boards has been shown to have financial benefits.

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A 2007 report on the performance of Fortune 500 companies by research agency Catalyst established that in all measures, companies with the most women board members outperformed those with the least.

The top quartile, those with the highest women's involvement, recorded a 53 per cent higher return on equity and 42 per cent higher return on sales than those companies in the bottom quartile.

"If you are in a room with different people you get different opinions. If you are all from the same background, it doesn't matter if you are all women, all men or all Maori or Pasifika, you just get one perspective.

"What happens is most boards are men of a certain age who happen to be white who see the world in a certain way. Whereas, as soon as you widen it out that can make a difference," Ms Leberman says.

New Plymouth District Council chief executive Barbara McKerrow heads an organisation with 500 staff. Her senior management team has four men and three women, a balance not arrived at by design, but an effective one.

"In general men and women do bring different strengths to their roles. I find women tend to be more intuitive about the behaviour of people and this is an advantage when managing staff and other key relationships," she says.

"Men, on the other hand, can be more task-oriented and self-confident. Overall though we all have our different individual strengths and weaknesses, regardless of gender."

A lack of women in top jobs in both the public and private sectors can often come down to family, she says, and the break from work many take to raise one.

"It is very difficult to gain the necessary experience and progress to a CEO level without reasonable continuity in positions of increasing responsibility. I returned to work fulltime when my sons were very young, but I know many women prefer not to do that and I understand why. I didn't find it easy either."

Kim Gilkison, of New Plymouth engineering firm ITL, sees it getting easier, even in an industry where women make up just 20 per cent of staff.

The testosterone is embedded in the language. Engineers are always referred to as "he", she says. Those who haven't met Kim presume her to be a man.

"It's minor stuff but it does influence how people think. You look at women in engineering CEO roles. There are not that many. The biggest issue is still family and sharing, and at the moment women still do the bulk of that family work," she says.

"But when you look at men today there is a lot more involvement in the family and sharing of the workload. That makes a big difference for women being able to achieve in the workplace."

Her feeling fits with other conclusions made in January's NZIER report to the Ministry of Women's affairs. If current trends continue, the research says, the average time men and women spend in the workforce will converge within 10 years. That means more and more couples will be sharing the responsibility of raising a family and the time off work it requires.

Family isn't the only thing stopping women getting to the top, says Taranaki farmer and NZ Dairy Board member Barbara Kuriger.

"It's often a women's mindset that stops them. Oh, I can't do that yet, or I need to do another course before I can do that. As women we are a bit hard on ourselves," she says.

"And in the past I have felt women felt they have had to act like men to get there. I have always said to women, just act like who you are. Don't change and think you have to hide your feminine side. Today's generation don't even think about that. People are people. They just get on with it."

Former South Taranaki mayor and current Witt board chairwoman Mary Bourke is another for seeing the skills a person has rather than the sex they were born into. She believes trying to enforce attitudinal change through rules or legislation is counterproductive.

"Forcing a 50/50 split carries a risk that the best people for the positions might be subverted in order to tick a box.

"This is not keeping the eye on the end objective. Applying a one-size-fits-all approach is a recipe for forced mediocrity and isn't the right answer in either business or politics."

Equal numbers don't always add up to equality anyway, says Debbie Ngawera Packer, of South Taranaki's Ngati Ruanui.

"I look at councils in South Taranaki, Stratford and New Plymouth and we have female and male CEOs. I have to say, in governance cycles, I don't get a sense there is an imbalance," she says.

In her own organisation there are just as many women as men, maybe more, and she credits strong male role models in the iwi for empowering women with the confidence to aim for the top.

"Culturally there are different roles that males and females play, but there is also an equality that applies to leadership.

"At Pariroa Pa there might be three or four men carrying the paepae, but there are three or four rows of women who do everything else," she says.

"It's not about numbers. It's about respect and that each knows each other's roles and each other's strengths."

- Taranaki Daily News

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