Joan Withers: Shattering the glass ceiling

23:03, Mar 17 2014
Joan Withers
WOMAN AT THE TOP: The indomitable Joan Withers has been at the forefront of fighting for gender diversity in boardrooms for 17 years.

She should be tired.

Joan Withers has just driven the two hours from Auckland to Hamilton, given a speech, hobnobbed, and is now doing an interview. The clock hanging on the wall behind her has yet to strike 9am.

Instead, the indomitable Withers is immaculately dressed - there's not a wrinkle visible - and ready to engage on the subject of women in business and all things governance.

She is well qualified to give an opinion too. Withers currently chairs the Mighty River Power board, is deputy chair of the TVNZ board, a director of ANZ and of The Treasury Advisory Board. Those titles sit alongside several trusteeships, and cap 20 years of senior executive experience including chief executive of Fairfax Media.

Through it all, the English-born Withers has been at the forefront of the fight to bring gender diversity to the boardroom.

Withers' own journey is well documented. At 16 she left school to work as a bank teller, before moving up the ranks of the advertising world.


But it was a Masters in Business Administration completed in her mid-30s that changed the course of her life.

"It is never too late to learn," she repeats several times during the interview.

"The single most important factor in my career progress was completing an MBA."

From there she moved on to executive roles, eventually spending time as chief executive at both Fairfax Media and The Radio Network.

Now, she says the "glass ceiling" she had to fight against to reach the top has "shattered" for women.

Was she surprised, then, by the two reports recently released that seemed to suggest the opposite?

A Grant Thornton report released last week showed that the proportion of New Zealand businesses with no women in senior management roles has increased from 26 per cent in 2012 to 32 per cent today.

That bucks the international trend, as did the finding that support for quota systems to guarantee a percentage of women has also dropped, from 44 per cent to 37.

To top it off the NZX's first Gender Diversity Annual Statistics showed that male directors outnumbered female by 88 per cent to 12 per cent in the 109 companies that participated.

"If we go back to '97 I would have thought by now we would be much better than 12 per cent of the NZX companies," she says.

"It hasn't happened as quickly as one might have hoped."

The figures come despite the virtual eradication of the old boys' club that once dominated corporate board rooms, says Withers.

There are "almost no vestiges of it left, certainly in the big companies."

"We're not seen as a token any more," she says.

She credits the government push for diversity on the boards of its State Owned Enterprises for giving impetus to the change.

"The Crown has really been at the forefront," she says. "In 1997 women were to an extent a token."

Not that she saw it that way. The women she worked with in directorships had "significant all-round directoral heft" and in no way deserved the token title.

Wither says the suggestion "always made my blood boil".

But if the push for women on boards is now commonplace, what is behind the lacklustre number of female directors sitting in company board rooms around the country?

"I think the generational change that has happened is that women are tending to have their children at a later stage in life," says Withers.

"It's a much bigger challenge because they are at a much more senior level by the time they have kids.

That means moving out of an executive role into a directoral role - with its associated pay cut - is no longer an option for some women in their mid 40s with families to look after.

"At the stage that I went on a board my son would have been in his 20s, so it's a very different proposition," Withers says.

But she is hopeful that the diversity factor on New Zealand boards will continue to increase.

Withers herself is part of the 25 Percent Group, which aims to see women membership on boards at 25 per cent by 2015. Whether they will get there is a question Wither's fellow member is strongest on. Following the release of the NZX statistics last week, ASB chief executive Barbara Chapman cast doubt over the 25 Percent Group's efficacy, calling for executive influencers to "step up".

Withers, however, believes we will get there eventually, pointing out the numerous schemes in operation to achieve gender diversity.

"There's a number of initiatives that are happening that will over time provide real traction," says Withers.

But, she also points out "gender, of course, is only the first frontier of directoral diversity".

New Zealand has a dearth of young, Maori, Pacific and Asian directors, the last of this group increasingly important giving our trade ties in Asia.

For that reason she supports Mai Chen's push to increase the number of NZX boards with Asian membership (currently at 5 per cent) through NZ Asian Leaders.

However, her advice for these groups is the same as that she would give to any women;

"It's really about making sure you take control of your own development. "Don't be rabidly ambitious, but make sure that you are getting credit for the things you are doing, don't let your light be hidden under somebody else's bushel."