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Census report a valuable tool for women's equality

Monday 31 March 2008

Census report a valuable tool for women's equality

Associate Justice Minister Lianne Dalziel and Women's Affairs Minister Steve Chadwick have welcomed the release of the 2008 Census of Women’s Participation as a useful tool for raising awareness of gender inequity and for driving progress towards equality.

Speaking at the launch of the Census – a biennial report produced by the Human Rights Commission – Lianne Dalziel said the data in the Census prodded all New Zealanders, both in the public and the private sectors to improve women's participation at all levels, but especially in leadership roles.

Lianne Dalziel noted that in its comments on New Zealand's latest periodic report to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the United Nations committee praised New Zealand for its commitment to achieving equality for all women, but also recommended that New Zealand take concrete action to increase the number of women in decision-making roles.

"This Census provides an important yardstick in measuring our progress when reporting to bodies such as CEDAW. The 2008 Census tells us we have made progress but also reminds us that we all still have work to do.

"The Human Rights Commission rightly points out that it will take significant whole-of-government commitment to reach our self-imposed target of 50 percent women’s participation on state sector boards and committees by 2010.

"This is a target that has been committed to by successive governments but now the heat is really on. The latest figures show that we have risen only slightly over the past couple of years to 42 per cent participation. Closing that 8 per cent gap by 2010 will require resolve and effort but we are going to do our utmost to achieve it. This is a problem for all New Zealanders and all governments. The way to achieve change is to identify the problem then jointly push for a solution and that's where this census is so valuable," Lianne Dalziel said.

Steve Chadwick said that as Minister of Women’s Affairs, one area that particularly concerns her is the very low participation rates of women on company boards and in senior management.

"I find it disturbing that less than nine percent of the directors of companies listed on the New Zealand Stock Exchange are women and that only one company has more than two women directors. There is a lot of room for improvement”

Steve Chadwick said there was compelling evidence from overseas that companies with more diversity on their boards perform much better, on average, than those with few or no women on their boards, which mean real profits for shareholders.

"Perhaps it’s the shareholders who should be asking ‘where are the women?"

Steve Chadwick said it was worth pointing out that New Zealand continues to be ranked highly in international measures of gender parity (fifth in The Global Gender Gap Report 2007, up two places from the 2006 ranking).

"We all benefit when all New Zealanders are able to make their full contribution to our nation. The Census of Women’s Participation is a tool to help us get there."

Q&As

What is the Census of Women’s Participation?

It is a biennial report produced by the Human Rights Commission through the Equal Employment Opportunities (EEO) Programme. It measures how well New Zealand is doing in the participation of women in leadership roles in the state sector, corporate, legal, academic, and other fields. The 2008 Census of Women’s Participation (the Census) is the third such report.

Why is it necessary?
The Census is a benchmarking exercise and provides an objective tool to describe and debate the position and status of New Zealand women, and provides for international comparisons to be made. We have international obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to encourage the participation of women in political and public life on equal terms with men. We submitted our sixth periodic report to CEDAW in August last year. The CEDAW committee has urged New Zealand to do better across a range of areas including women in leadership, politics, and public life.

Which areas of women’s participation in society are scrutinised under the Census?
Data is included on women’s representation on boards of private companies; of statutory bodies including crown companies and other crown entities; in politics; the judiciary and law; universities; media and public relations; the trade union movement; sport; local government; and the New Zealand Police. For the first time, the availability of data on Māori women is reported and discussed where possible.

What’s the big deal about having women on boards? Surely it is about appointing the best candidate?
There is compelling evidence that having women on boards makes good business sense. Women’s presence often improves corporate governance, and companies that have higher numbers of women on their boards enjoy higher profitability. Yes, it is about appointing the best candidate but often women do not put their names forward for directorships. Recent research has identified that the absence of mentoring, and the inability to gain practical experience as a director are two further reasons for this. Recruiting board members is often done by shoulder-tapping by existing chairs, boards, and senior management which perpetuates a small tight circle of men and very few women.

Does the Census offer recommendations for change?
The Census contains an Agenda for Change 2008 at its conclusion. It says ‘change to promote increased female participation in governance, professional and public life is now urgently required if New Zealand is to continue to be a world leader’. It lists 11 recommendations which are intended to act as a catalyst to stakeholders such as the government, publicly listed companies, chief executives and senior managers, women and others with the power to make a difference.

What does it recommend to the corporate sector?
It recommends that the 60 top 100 companies listed on the New Zealand Stock Exchange without a single woman on their boards, prioritise female appointments as soon as a board vacancy arises. It also recommends the 40 companies on the New Zealand Debt Market (NZDX) and the 22 companies on the New Zealand Alternative Market (NZAX) without any female representation at board level actively seek, recruit, and appoint suitably qualified women.

What does it recommend the government do?
It recommends the government, by 2010, fulfils the promise made internationally and outlined in the 2004 Action Plan for New Zealand Women of achieving 50 percent of women on statutory boards.

What is the current percentage of women on statutory boards?
The most recent figure is from December 2006 and shows 42 percent.

What can be done to close the 8 percent gap? What about legislation?
It is felt that New Zealanders would generally see legislation as heavy handed at this stage. Government has been steadily working towards equal representation of women and men on its boards for some time now. The fact that we have made significant progress towards achieving that balance in the public sector shows that it can be done.

The issue for the private sector is that most companies have not even begun to recognise there is a problem. The Census will make it harder for them to ignore the problem. This is accentuated by the clear evidence from overseas that companies with diversity on their boards are more profitable than those with few or no women on boards. Ministers would like to see what we can achieve with education and with a lot more public scrutiny of business performance in this area before we start talking about needing legislated quotas.

Business' markedly different attitude towards environmental responsibility has happened largely through changing expectations of consumers and through shareholder pressure. This may be another issue that would respond to that kind of public debate and shareholder activism – especially when there is good evidence that business itself would benefit.

Will the target of 50 percent women on state sector boards and committees be reached by 2010?
Reaching that target will be a stretch, which is what any good target should be – possible, but requiring dedication and effort to achieve. We are making steady progress towards that target but everyone would like to see the pace of change increase.

The figure the Census uses is from December 2006, so we actually have up to four years, rather than two, to achieve the goal, but 8 percent will still be a big ask. We are going to do our best to achieve it though, without lowering the standards of appointments. We have always been clear that we are looking for the right women, with the right skills, and we must not compromise on getting the best people for all our boards. Women do not want tokenism, but they do want their skills recognised.

Is there, as some claim, a shortage of suitably qualified women to serve on boards – especially on large commercial boards?
People typically become ‘board ready’ for these large commercial boards through experience in senior management in organisations. This experience is generally gained over twenty or thirty years. The lack of women who have had this management experience does mean there is currently a smaller pool of women with the kind of commercial experience necessary.

A smaller pool is not the same as ‘no women available’ however, and this should not be used, as it currently is, as an easy excuse for doing nothing.

The government owns some of the largest businesses in New Zealand and we manage to find directors to take more than a third of the positions on Crown company boards. The fact that, in the private sector listed companies, women occupy only 8.65 percent of their board positions clearly means that women’s talents are far from fully utilised. The pool of experienced women is also growing quite quickly as more enter senior management, so the argument that there are no women available is becoming weaker.


Why has progress slowed so much?
We are still making progress, though the rate is slower than we would like. It is clear from the experience of other countries, that getting from percentages in the early and mid forties up to 50 percent women’s participation on state sector boards is hard. The latest comparable figures for other countries include Denmark at 41.3 percent, Australia at 32.2 percent and the UK at 35 percent. So it’s not just New Zealand that is struggling to close the remaining gap.

It tends to be hardest in areas where women have had a less prominent role – for example in agriculture and forestry – and this means that raising the number of women on these boards cannot be achieved at a great rate. It is only in the last two years that a stocktake of all boards for gender equity has enabled us to focus on those areas which need the most attention. The other issue is that appointments inevitably have long lead times as vacancies do not come up very frequently.

ENDS


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