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The Moxie Sessions: Girls can do anything – so how come they’re not?

Every month, The Moxie Sessions bring together a small group of Auckland business thinkers to discuss ways New Zealand can take advantage of the internet and boost its competitiveness. For more, see themoxiesessions.co.nz.  This month, we returned to technology and innovation precinct GridAKL to ask:  have we taken seriously women's participation in business and society as accelerants for New Zealand's success or are we still treating it as a 'women's' or 'diversity' issue?  What's to be gained and how do we get there faster, together?

Back in the 1980s, when I was first a university student, then an airforce pilot, it felt as though things were looking up for women in New Zealand. While participation in many areas of society was far from equal, change was afoot. My RNZAF wings course included our first female pilot. Women’s studies was a new, popular and influential subject at my university. A Ministry of Women’s Affairs had just been established. And someone, presumably from some government department or other, had had some bumper stickers printed.

They were yellow, and they said in big bold letters: Girls Can Do Anything.

Thirty years on, (setting aside the whole girls/women thing) not many people would argue with that sentiment. Women can do anything, as they’ve proved convincingly and repeatedly through senior roles in business and politics. (And yes, every keystroke of that sentence felt cringingly patriarchal to write but we’ll keep moving…)

The thing is, though, while they can, they’re not. Women are under-represented in senior business roles, board positions, the investment community and all levels of politics.

The questions facing our packed Moxie Sessions table, then, were: why? Does it matter? And what can we do about it?

Leading the discussion were business leader Victoria Crone, angel investment director Alex Mercer and MP Jacinda Ardern. 

So what’s happened in the 30 years since the bumper sticker? According to ATEED chief executive Brett O’Riley (who wandered past our meeting, as people at GridAKL tend to), not much. Ten years ago, when New Zealand schoolgirls were asked what they hoped to do for a job, the top three were flight attendant, hairdresser and journalist. Today, the top three are flight attendant, hairdressers and journalist. Young women, it seems, still aren’t setting particularly high goals.

Jacinda Ardern echoes this sentiment. When she visits schools, she says she often asks students to write down two things: their dream career, and the job they believe they’ll end up doing. The gender differences are striking. The boys almost always write down the same two jobs. The girls, while having dream careers just as aspirational as the boys', usually believe they’ll end up doing something more mundane. (It would have been interesting to see Ardern’s childhood career picks, coming as she does from a town where, “some of my best mates are cow inseminators.”)

Global Women Director Business Partnerships Alex Mercer sees women as having another crucial role in the New Zealand economy: as investors, particularly in startups. New Zealand startups need more money than the angel investment community is currently offering: last year it totalled $53 million; Alex claims the need is double that at least.

Encouraging women to invest could go some way to solving that problem. Only 5% of New Zealand angel capital is invested by women, compared with 13% in the US. This is a major disparity – as Victoria Crone points out, 80% of purchasing decisions worldwide are made by women, so assessing risk and value are every day tasks for many of them. But it’s not just about the numbers. Alex views female investors as more interested in the personalities of company founders and says they tend to take a more long-term view, generally take fewer risks and spend more time researching investments than their male counterparts. 

As an experienced business leader, Xero managing director Victoria Crone is a firm believer in the value of women in senior roles. As the world’s primary consumer decision makers, they bring deep understanding of how products and services are chosen and bought. Victoria also sees women’s relationship-building skills as an asset to any business team.

And while male business leaders may excel at the competitive, “hunter-gatherer” role, she points out that women bring skills in nurturing staff and teams, and constantly scanning the environment for threats. 

That nurturing aspect isn’t always a positive though. One participant told of being advised by a very senior (and childless) female business leader that she could never reach the top level if she had children. The same woman went on to describe how she hid a pregnancy from colleagues until 19 weeks in order to not miss out on a promotion. 

So, if women are underrepresented and businesses are missing out because of that, what can we do about it? 

Have a policy. If you’re a company that employs people, have a policy on diversity. What’s in the policy matters but not as much as having one. Tell people you have it, let them read it, and prepare to be held to it.

Start with their daughters. If you want business leaders to change their thinking about employing, leading and promoting women, move the conversation from the abstract to the personal. Ask them if they’d be happy if their daughter was hit on, overlooked for promotion or sidelined on boys’ nights out on business trips.

Consider quotas – cautiously. The idea of quotas received a mixed reception, with some in support and some pointing out that women appointed to roles in businesses with gender equality quotas often face criticism that they didn’t get there on their own merit. And if the quotas were government mandated, of course, they would bring with them an auditing and reporting burden most small businesses could do without. 

An alternative to quotas is to actively seek out women for roles they might not ordinarily apply for. As more than one speaker pointed out, the confidence gap between men and women is a real issue. Equally qualified and experience women are still a lot less likely to put themselves forward for roles than their male equivalents. As both lawyer Sacha Judd (wearing her event organiser hat) and Vend CEO Vaughan Rowsell (wearing no hat at all, but quite the moustache) pointed out, that means you need to make an effort and go looking. Those event speaker rosters and job applicant shortlists won’t diversify themselves on their own.

Most of all, though, we need to see low participation by women as a business or society-wide problem, not just a problem for women to solve. Leaving gender equality or indeed any kind of diversity issue to the affected group to solve is a bit like expecting the Maui’s Dolphin to just harden up and save itself from extinction.

So while the bumper sticker was right – girls can do anything – what it left out is that if they’re going to get the chance to, all of us will need to help make that happen.

The Moxie Sessions is an internet economy discussion group held once a month in Auckland. Its purpose is to bring together a group of interesting folks from across the economy to talk about how New Zealand can take advantage of the internet to improve its economic performance.

Check out the standing invitation, the podcasts and the records of previous events at hemoxiesessions.co.nz, and follow @moxiesessions on Twitter.

Vaughn Davis is principal at social media and advertising agency The Goat Farm.

Comments and questions
3

Back in 80 we were told that women are our equals and they are, but we interpreted that as women are the same as men. They aren't. They know that what really counts is not what you get from being chained to an office desk 70 hours a week. Thank goodness.

Its easier to get ahead by manipulating the matrimonial property act. That eliminates all the stress, heart attacks and high blood pressure that being in business brings to men.

Thanks for this Vaughn and the other Moxie Sessions team. Part of the challenge here is that many aspects of culture seem invisible to the dominant group.