Census of women on boards: Should only a small gain be celebrated?

A new sex and power report by AUT researchers names and shames companies without female governance.

The proportion of women on the boards of the top 100 companies listed on the New Zealand Stock Exchange has finally climbed above 20% to 22.17% in 2017, according to the New Zealand Census of Women on Boards 2017.

Of the total 618 board members of the top 100 companies, 137 directorships were held by women but the number of board chairwomen has remained the same over the past five years at seven and the number of female chief executives has not moved beyond three.

There are still 25 of the top 100 companies that have no women on their boards despite decades of concerns about women’s representation and the value that brings.

One of the report’s authors, AUT professor Judy McGregor, who was also the country’s first Equal Opportunities Commissioner, says she’s slightly relieved after a decade of monitoring this issue that the number has finally moved over 20% but says such a small gain shouldn’t really be celebrated.

“There is some evidence of a slightly faster momentum because we now have a new element appearing in the gender representation on boards – the golden skirts club on boards of some women with more than two to three board appointments. So that’s a positive movement but 20% is still dire,” she says.

At this rate of progress, it will take another 13 years to 2030 to close the gender gap in governance at a time of women’s increasing labour force participation and buying power.

The number of companies with at least one women on the board increased to 75 from 55 during the five years to 2017. Those having just one woman director now number 32, while those with two women on the board is now 27, and those with three or more has risen to 13. There are only three companies – Tourism Holdings, AMP and Genesis Energy – that have four women on boards.

Some six of the top-100 companies have a gender equal board – Contact Energy, Kiwi Property, Summerset Group, Tourism Holdings, Steel & Tube, and Kingfish.  Genesis is the only one to have women as both chairwoman and deputy chairwoman. The theory suggests that to enhance the likelihood of women’s voices being heard in the boardroom, there should be at least three women on the board, the report says.

Ms McGregor says there needs to be stronger government leadership on the matter and she is still a strong proponent of introducing government-mandated quotas or organised consumer/shareholder activism despite the progress made. The merit argument has been used time and time again, particularly by companies with no women on the board, she says.

“Those countries that have quotas a) the sky hasn’t fallen in and b) the company has been rewarded by a wealth of talent that women can bring to boards,” she says. “It’s inexcusable in 2017 to see companies that can’t find appropriate and well-qualified women to sit around the board table.”

The NZX recently toughened its stance on gender diversity to match what happens in Australia with all listed companies required to have a gender diversity policy or explain why not.  

The report names 18 companies that had no women on their boards in 2012 and now have at least one female director: Fisher & Paykel Healthcare, Port of Tauranga, Xero, Mainfreight, Sky Network, A2 Milk, Infratil, Trustpower, Metlifecare, Heartland Bank, Property for Industry, Tourism Holdings, Green Cross Health, Hellaby Holdings, Comvita, NZ Oil & Gas, South Port NZ, and NPT.

The report singles out Mainfreight for praise. The global transport company had no women directors until this year and now has two, which better reflects the composition of its workforce where women make up one-third of staff.

“What we don’t want is an old girls' network to just replace an old boys' network. We want a more diverse boardroom that adds value to profits but is also conscious of workforce issues and the other complex moral and ethical environment in which companies are now operating,” Ms McGregor says.

The 25 companies without female representation are: Airwork Holdings, Argosy Property, CBL Corporation, CDL Investments, The Colonial Motor Company, Gentrack, Global Bond Trust, Metro Performance Glass, Millennium & Copthorne, NZ Bond Trust, NZ Cash Trust, NZ King Salmon Investments, NZ Top 50 Fund, Orion Health Group, Pacific Edge, PGG Wrightson, Pushpay, Rubicon, Scale Corporation, Scott Technology, Tegel Group, The Europe Trust, The US 500 Trust, Tower, and Turners.

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