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Leadership Diversity in New Zealand: Where Do We Stand?

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Diversity is a hot topic in business – and rightly so. Organisations operate in a world that is smaller and more connected than ever before. Diversity at all levels can give companies the edge in terms of attracting and retaining talent, communicating effectively with customers both locally and globally, and above all, serves to foster a culture of creativity and innovation. It can also translate to successful business performance, with a report published by McKinsey & Company revealing that companies with more gender, ethnic and racial diversity in leadership perform better financially.

I am passionate about diversity in general. As a woman in a leadership role, I am equally passionate about seeing women progress in leadership and do my utmost to support and promote the career journeys of women both in my organisation and in the wider New Zealand business community. I believe that having balanced gender presentation in senior roles is essential to ensuring a quality pipeline of leadership talent and advancing diverse perspectives both in business and the wider community. But where do we stand on this? How are we supporting female leaders today? What should we be working towards in the future?

How Diverse are New Zealand’s Business Leaders?

The data does not tell a positive story. According to a global report by Grant Thornton, 71% of companies in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region had at least one woman in a senior management role in 2018, an increase from the previous year of 6%. Over the same period, however, the proportion of senior management roles held by women dropped from 25% to 23%. Zoom in closer on New Zealand businesses in the Workplace Diversity Survey 2019 and we see more of the same. Yes, women are strongly represented at the governance and leadership/decision-making levels but in 30-40% of organisations, they make up less than 25% of governance, leadership and decision-making teams.

The New Zealand survey shows the growing awareness among businesses of the importance of gender diversity, with 66.8% of respondents identifying it as a key diversity issue in 2019, up from 36.1% in 2018, 45.0% in 2017 and 28.9% in 2016. The report attributes this staggering increase in part to Jacinda Ardern’s high-profile pregnancy while in office, as well as the strength of the global #MeToo movement. Could the risk of potential legislation in some countries and the increased gaze of the media have played a role? No forward-thinking organisation wants to be seen to not have a diversity strategy.  

Despite the increased focus on gender diversity, however, women still have a long way to go before they reach parity with men in executive leadership roles.

What are Businesses Doing to Support Leadership Diversity?

The evidence shows that New Zealand businesses already have a raft of policies in place to support women at all levels in the workplace. In 2019, 79.1% of organisations offered flexible work time, around 76% of firms provided remote work or part-time work opportunities, while over 60% provided family-friendly arrangements. These options provide women, or men, that choose to become a primary caregiver or take a career break with structured ways to remain in or return to the workforce. Additionally, 67.7% of survey respondents reported that diversity was a consideration in relevant HR policies, while a similar percentage stated that top management was committed to and involved in diversity issues. Likewise, 62.3% of respondents indicated that they had a specific gender policy in their organisation.

This data raises several questions. Why aren’t these policies and practices working, i.e. why are we still not seeing more women in leadership roles? Are organisations simply paying lip service to gender diversity? And what about those organisations where there is no perceived management commitment and involvement, or gender policy?

It’s evident that current efforts are not yet effective, and that New Zealand businesses need to do more to support, promote and contribute to gender diversity in leadership.

Forging a Diverse Future

In my experience, real organisational change comes from within. Gender diversity in leadership does not result from box-ticking exercises, but from a genuine commitment to identifying, developing, mentoring, promoting and retaining talented women at every level of the organisation. That commitment has to come from the top, from leaders who understand gender diversity to be the norm and truly value talent regardless of diversity. For many, inclusive leadership takes courage and a willingness to step out of their comfort zone or the traditional.

Diversity policies are important but will only work best when championed form the Board and the Executives of an organisation. Bias toward diversity, too, can only be tackled effectively when the leadership team understands the impact it can have on decision-making and the wider workplace, and then invests in relevant training to minimise assumptions and pigeonholing. And clearly, any organisation committed to gender diversity needs to have women in positions of responsibility, management and leadership.

Change, however, also comes from within the individual. As women, we need to believe in ourselves and our ability to reach the most senior levels of an organisation, and do what it takes to make a difference when we get there.

Final Thoughts

Despite the multiple benefits of diversity in leadership, many organisations are still early on the journey to truly supporting gender diversity and women’s career journeys in the workplace. Policies exist, but real change requires commitment from the top and a strong talent pipeline of women who will forge the path to diverse leadership in the long term.

Beyond Recruitment is passionate about diversity and women in leadership. Read our blog for inspirational stories from women in senior positions in New Zealand businesses, and contact us today to discuss your career journey.