“Men are still viewed as default leaders and women as atypical leaders”
– (Hannum et al., 2015, p. 66).
New Zealand has a severe shortage of women in leadership at governance levels in the private sector. For kiwi companies listed on the stock market, only 17% of directors are female. In senior management in terms of staff, it isn’t much better: of the top 50 companies on the NZX, only one has a woman Chief Executive.
Such low statistics surely don’t inspire young ambitious New Zealand women to feel optimistic about their chances of achieving governance roles here. Instead, it sends the signal that to be a woman in governance will be a struggle – you will be in the minority and roles might be difficult to find. This could have a troubling, long-term negative impact on dissuading the pipeline of future talent from setting their sights on governance.
This research project looks at the current situation for women in governance in New Zealand and considers the role of mentoring in developing more women with an interest in and capability for governance roles. By interviewing 11 accomplished New Zealand women who are already in at least their second board role, I sought to answer the research question of, ‘Can mentoring contribute to preparing more New Zealand women for private sector governance roles?’
Support networks are beneficial
The findings are that mentoring is a useful tool for developing professional skills, and all senior women interviewed benefit from a support network including mentors. However, while aspirant directors would benefit from mentoring, it is not the only solution to improving levels of women in governance.
Initiatives should have the broader focus of getting more women in leadership generally, including at CEO levels and on boards. Aspirant directors should be encouraged and given a clear idea of what governance involves. Board recruitment processes should adopt thorough searches that include gender diversity.
Women directors are naturally very driven
I found women who were naturally driven sought a range of mentors, the way an aspiring athlete may take the initiative to hire a coach and a masseuse and a personal trainer and a dietitian to assist with different areas of their development. These driven women are generally self-aware and deeply committed to personal and professional development.
All the women interviewed had some form of mentoring: personalised work-focused support that enabled career progression and development. This confirms previous research that mentoring is beneficial for career success.
While mentoring contributed to the success of the few New Zealand women in governance, there was not a clear link between mentoring and governance specifically.
The women interviewed were shoulder-tapped or recommended for their first director roles rather than deliberately seeking out those positions. Typically, governance opportunities came to them once they had built up experience and proven themselves at senior leadership.
Women are in the minority at senior leadership
The interviews raised for me the importance of the fact that New Zealand doesn’t just lack ladies on boards: they are in the minority at all senior leadership levels. Initiatives and discussions about more women in governance should therefore be broadened to include the need for more women in senior leadership generally.
In order to have a diverse pool of skilled, capable people to be directors in future, the pipeline needs to be built up and supported at the mid-senior career level. Many of the women interviewed had a sponsor at the mid-senior career level, indicating sponsorship and access to networks was beneficial for reaching senior leadership.
The women interviewed were skeptical of the motivation and capability of the next generation of aspirant directors. Therefore, women aiming for governance should have a clear idea of what it involves and up-skill for director roles with appropriate training. They should work to reach senior leadership roles in business because that experience is useful for building governance capability and demonstrating one’s skills.
Most of the women interviewed were supportive of quotas to get more women on boards. The barriers are complex. Most women interviewed believed those appointing directors were not committed to seeking out more women and other forms of diversity.
Existing directors and CEOs should conduct thorough searches for directors, with a focus on diversity including gender. As the people who make decisions about who is appointed to leadership and governance, they play a critically influential role in supporting upcoming diverse talent. It is the responsibility of those hiring for boards and senior leadership roles to be aware of their privilege and their power to create real change. Shareholders can influence here if they advocate for more diversity in the leadership and governance of companies they invest in.