NZ women in leadership: Is it time we led the world again?

Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world. It is past time for women to take their rightful place, side by side with men, in the rooms where the fates of peoples, where their children’s and grandchildren’s fates, are decided
— Hillary Clinton
Creative commons_Marc Nozell

Women in New Zealand are sadly under-represented both at board level (only 7.5 percent of board seats are held by women) and at the top levels of our public service (41.5 percent of the senior leadership roles are held by women, with only 22 percent holding chief executive roles).

When you consider that it's been more than 120 years since New Zealand led the world in giving women the right to vote, surely it is well past time that women here were equally represented at the decision-making tables?

This is not just an equity or equality issue. It’s also about better business. Organisations with a balance of gender in leadership teams consistently outperform those that don’t – for a number of reasons. Partly it’s because diversity of perspectives leads to better decision-making. Researchers in the US also found that if a group includes more women, its collective intelligence rises.

It makes perfect sense then, that we should tap into the “largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world” and appoint more women into leadership positions – particularly as the Government and public service agencies continue to invest in initiatives to lift performance and productivity across the sector.

The research I did last year, however, identified a number of organisational barriers getting in the way of women reaching the top roles.

In a series of interviews with human resource directors from a third of the public service, I found evidence of male-dominated networks, unconscious bias in recruitment and promotion, stereotypes around leadership styles and, in some cases, sexism in the workplace. There was a surprising lack of awareness of the impact of these organisational systems, processes and cultures on women’s advancement, and therefore few measures in place to mitigate against them.

The underlying systemic factors will need to be addressed if we truly want to see gender balance in senior teams across the sector, and to get a return on investment in initiatives that focus on developing women for leadership roles. As I mentioned in the report, both system-wide and individual agency interventions will be required to effect long-term, sustainable change, with ongoing commitment and investment from the most senior levels of the public service.

The opportunity

Since no one seems to have got it right yet, it occurs to me there are some leadership opportunities there for the taking.

New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote – why not pull out all the stops and become the first country in the world to have women proportionately represented in public service leadership? Think what that could do for our reputation and branding, for marketing our capital city, and for attracting and retaining that reservouir of talent – not to mention the potential performance and productivity gains to be made across the sector.

There are opportunities too for individual public service organisations to step up to the plate and show others how it can be done.

And there is an opportunity for the HR profession also to show some leadership in this space.

As Steve Howard said at Ikea, "Measure what you care about and lead the change".


You can download the full research report here. The report is also available on the Ministry of Women’s Affairs’ bibliography "Inspiring Action" (see Gender Balance in the NZ Public Service: Why are there fewer women in the top roles and what needs to change?)


This article is also available on LinkedIn.