'We have been running business in a very masculine way – that needs to change'

by Rebecca Howard / 11 July, 2017
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Kimberly Sumner. Photo/Tony Nyberg

Kimberly Sumner believes climbing the male-dominated corporate ladder can be good for women and better for business. 

Kimberly Sumner, who once worked on the trading floor of an Australasian fund manager, is back in the corporate world. But this time she’s on a mission to help women – and businesses – become more prosperous.

The aim, says Sumner, is to help women in business to be recognised and paid their worth by lifting their confidence and resilience and equipping them to communicate their value “in a way that feels natural and authentic to them as women”.

Although gender diversity has been identified as intrinsically good for business, the country’s boardrooms and company leadership remain dominated by men. Recent data shows women make up 17% of board members and 20% of company officers. Just one woman, Chorus’s Kate McKenzie, is chief executive of a top-50 NZX-listed company.

“There are no excuses, it’s unacceptably low,” says Global Women chief executive Miranda Burdon. “We need to look pretty hard at ourselves as a country to figure out why that is.”

Sumner, head of She Prosperity, wants not only to figure it out but also to solve it. “I believe women need help in understanding and being very clear on the unique skill set or range of skills that they bring. They need the know-how and to be clear on why those skills are even more valuable today, and they need to know how to get those skills recognised and rewarded,” she says.

She Prosperity is a six-week online coaching programme, which aims to win women more money on the job, but in a way that they “feel valued, confident, supported and very much connected to their feminine side”, Sumner says.

She believes we are at a tipping point as increasingly scarce resources are used to make a better world. “For a long time, we have been running business in a very masculine way, and that needs to change,” she says.

Sumner, who is married with three children, is quick to emphasise that she’s not anti-men. “This is not about women over men. This is about doing business in a feminine way to balance doing business in a masculine way. When both ways of doing business are done, we have diversity and everyone prospers.”

Kimberly Sumner. Photo/Tony Nyberg

For Burdon, the key to success is “diversity of thought”, which fosters “creative, challenging” environments. “Boards with women are more creative; they increase returns to shareholders,” she says. Women bring a completely different point of view, yet “if you get a room full of just women, you are not going to achieve a better result either”.

A recent requirement for NZX-listed companies to have a diversity policy with measurable objectives and report against them or provide an explanation if they do not is “fantastic”, Burdon says, as it will mean greater accountability and transparency.

Research in 2015 into environmental, social and governance factors by US investment consultants MSCI found that companies with strong female leadership made a 10.1% annual return on equity compared with 7.4% for those without. Companies lacking board diversity tended to suffer from more governance-related controversies than average, MSCI found.

Sumner says she knows how tough the corporate world can be. “For a long time, there was a sense that if I want to succeed in business, I have to do it like a man. I have to bang my fists on the table. I have to dress like a man. Women leave because they don’t want to turn into men. They don’t want to play the game. They struggle with stepping into power.”

Women, according to Sumner, negotiate by looking for common ground and they tend to be a lot more transparent early on. “It’s not a big song and dance. Women don’t have enough time for it.” They have the ability to manage and absorb change quickly and to be flexible. “This has become a skill set that women can bring to companies.”

A number of issues that consistently come up in workshops that Sumner conducts form much of the basis of the teaching sessions. She uses techniques and strategies for confidence, resilience and leadership, but “you also need to shed light on the blocks that can get in the way”.

“If around the dinner table, your father banged his fists and said, ‘It needs to be hard’ or ‘You need to listen to me’ or ‘You have to do it this way’, then it’s harder for women to own their own value and their intuitive way of doing business.” Another thing to unlearn is that negotiation is a win-lose situation rather than a win-win. “These are things that need to be cleared at a cellular level.”

Sumner is encouraged by the recent $2 billion pay equity settlement for 55,000 care and support workers, most of whom are women. But pay parity continues to be an issue that comes up in her coaching. “Women don’t like being paid less than their male counterparts.” And though New Zealand ranks fairly highly on that score, “that doesn’t make it good enough”.

“We were the first country to give women the vote, so we could be the first country [on this issue].”

Burdon agrees. Pay equity isn’t a “women’s issue, it’s a societal issue”, requiring both women and men to change their attitudes.

Sumner says change is her modus operandi. “I am part of a group of women who are leading women in a different way, inspiring women to do it in a different way. Yes, you can do business, you can be prosperous, you can be successful, but you can also do it as a woman.”

This article was first published in the June 24, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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