9 Jul 2018

Board diversity essential for leadership in 2018

11:53 pm on 9 July 2018

By Andrea Brewster*

Opinion - For too long, our companies, institutions and organisations have been controlled by the same narrow demographic group. We like to think we're a progressive nation, but our embarrassingly low rate of female representation on boards has been glacially slow to change.

A man and two women in business dress stand on a balcony in an office.

Gender representation is a clear public signal of how seriously a company takes diversity, says Andrea Brewster Photo: 123RF

The backlash from Minister for Women Julie Anne Genter's recent comments show we still have a long way to go.

I'm tired of hearing that we just need to wait for the next generation coming through, that there aren't enough women with the right experience, or that more women just need to put themselves forward for board roles.

This rhetoric puts all the onus on women to do the work, instead of the people making the recruitment decisions. There are plenty of capable women and other minorities in our communities, so boards should be actively seeking them out.

Good governance requires robust discussion and decision making, thinking strategically about all the issues that could affect a company. Diversity of perspectives is crucially important, to ensure that decisions are not made with the lens of one worldview and that all the possible implications are considered.

With disruption in every industry and exponential technological, social and environmental change, companies must be able to respond and adapt quickly to survive. This will only be possible with the inclusion of diverse perspectives in decision making, as lens of one narrow demographic group cannot adequately respond to complex issues that affect an increasingly diverse population.

This is why, in addition to gender, we also need people with a mix of different ages, cultures, sexual orientations and abilities on our boards.

Companies might also consider the impact of their leadership diversity on their ability to attract and retain staff and customers, particularly socially conscious millennials.

Gender representation is a clear public signal of how seriously a company takes diversity, and is often a factor in the employment, business or purchase decisions of my peer group.

All of us have economic power which can be used as a lever for change, and I encourage you to consider the leadership you are supporting through your purchase decisions. For example, I'm proud to be a customer of Simplicity KiwiSaver which asked companies it invests for improved gender representation on their boards, and I'll be watching closely to see which organisations step up.

When you're used to having all the power, equality can feel like oppression. It's true that men will need to give up some of their seats at the table, seats that some of them have gained purely through their position as a dominant social group, the result of hundreds of years of privilege.

Men need to think about how they can use their privilege to champion a more equal and inclusive Aotearoa. I want boards to consider whether their makeup is representative of the diverse perspectives we are lucky to have in our communities, and if their decision making is robust enough to ensure their survival.

True leadership means recognising when it's your time to raise others up, and using your power to create positive change.

*Andrea Brewster is a feminist, changemaker and entrepreneur. She runs her own consultancy, Brewster + Associates, focused on strategy, organisational change and the future of work. A champion of young women in leadership, she serves on several non-profit boards and was a finalist in the 2016 Women of Influence and 2016/17 Women on Boards awards.