Few women in Chch boardrooms

MICHAEL BERRY AND AMANDA BEST
Last updated 10:08 06/07/2012

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Women are thin on the ground in Christchurch boardrooms with most big companies sporting either one female director or none.

Of 12 large Christchurch firms, four have no female board members, six have one, and two have two.

The NZX has announced companies listed on its exchange will have to report on the gender diversity of their boards and executive management from next year. The rule is subject to Financial Markets Authority approval.

NZX chief executive Tim Bennett said it was important to let companies make their own decisions about diversity. However, Shareholders' Association director Gayatri Jaduram said the status quo could continue because the rule did not go far enough.

Bennett had "lost a golden opportunity" to make a mark on his new job by implementing a stronger diversity rule and one that covered all diversity, not just gender, she said.

Equal Employment Opportunities Trust chairman Michael Barnett said the rule would help people think differently about gender representation.

"We want to see a flow of women coming through management that will make up the representation in the boardroom. We need to ensure the pipeline is full."

State-owned enterprise Mighty River Power has four women on its board, and chairwoman Joan Withers said the company was better managed because of it.

She was against imposing quotas, saying women should be appointed for their skills, not because they tick a box.

"As a woman, I would hate to be appointed a director on a board because they are looking to fulfil a quota."

Smiths City managing director Rick Hellings believed the reporting requirement was unnecessary. Smiths City would not write up a gender policy and he believed the act of creating one an indictment on a firm's decision-making.

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

The Christchurch-based retailer was gender-neutral and looked for skills the board needed regardless of where they were found, he said.

Diversity reporting was introduced across the Tasman two years ago. From 5 per cent in 2009, the number of female directors had jumped to a third of all appointments.

That surprised Hellings: "I would have thought, in this day and age, best practice was more widespread than that."

He believed Kiwi companies were better than their Australian counterparts at appointing diverse boards - but there could be some that were not. If the reporting requirements made them improve their appointments that would be only for the better, he said.

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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.

Ebos managing director Mark Waller said the company would probably not need a gender policy as it was "already ahead of the game" with two female directors on its six-strong board. The first consideration for appointments was to get good directors and the second was the right balance, depending on the industry.

"What I like to do, with all things in business, is to start at the customer end. Who's your targeted market? And in the retail market by far and away the decision makers are women. If you have an all- male director board in a sector dominated by women decision-makers then that's not too smart."

On the flip side, companies in male-dominated industries, such as heavy engineering firm Scott Technology, found it difficult to get women on to boards. A company director, Waller said few women were drawn to the industry as staff and therefore almost no women had suitable experience to join the board.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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