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Why aren't more women getting to the top of business?

Paula Bennett, Deputy PM; Dame Patsy Reddy, Governor-General; Victoria Ransom; Marama Fox, Maori Party co-leader; Dame Sian Elias, Chief Justice; Diane Foreman.

Appointed CEO of Telecom at just 37, Theresa Gattung remains “gobsmacked” that there are so few women in top business roles in New Zealand.

Last year, there were no female CEOs in our top 50 companies. In the 125 NZX-listed companies in New Zealand in 2016, a mere 17% of directors were women, falling to 13% in the final quarter. The Institute of Directors describes the figures as “shocking”, especially when compared with other Western countries. In Canada, the figure was 21%, in the UK it was 27% and in the US it was 22%.

Gattung stresses that, although companies are increasing the ratio of women to men in the workplace and in senior leadership roles, the shift is happening far too slowly.

Meanwhile, the difference between men’s and women’s wages grew last year, with the gender pay gap standing at 12%, according to Statistics New Zealand. The gap had been shrinking between 1998 and 2012, but has slowly widened since then.


Read more: Theresa Gattung: The feminist capitalist who stole a march


Gattung says that when she was Telecom’s CEO, New Zealand had a female prime minister, leader of the Opposition, mayor of our biggest city and a female Chief Justice. Now there is a female Governor-General, female Chief Justice and Chief District Court Judge, along with co-leaders or deputy leaders of political parties, but we have only just again appointed a female deputy prime minister.

And although women start companies at twice the rate of men globally, female chief executives receive just 2.7% of all venture funding, according to research by US firm First Round Capital, which helped fund the likes of Uber. It reports that in 1999, 10% of venture capitalists were women. That figure has now fallen to 6%. Gattung says it was these sorts of statistics that inspired Vicki Saunders to set up SheEO, the start-up funding source for female-led businesses that will feature this March in a conference Gattung is underwriting.

In New Zealand, just four individual women made last year’s NBR Rich List, which featured 186 entries whose wealth was estimated at $50 million or more: Victoria Ransom ($250 million), Diane Foreman ($190 million), Dame Wendy Pye ($105 million) and Annette Presley ($100 million).

In fact, women appear to be losing ground in the millionaire ranks. Worldwide, the number of women worth US$30 million or more declined in 2015 – while the equivalent male population grew.

Annette King, Labour Party deputy leader; Jan-Marie Doogue, Chief District Court Judge; Dame Wendy Pye; Metiria Turei, Green Party co-leader; Rebecca Kitteridge, Security Intelligence Service director; Annette Presley.

It’s not all bad news. In 2000, there were 11 female billionaires, according to Forbes; by 2016, there were 190, with Australian mining magnate Gina Rinehart among the world’s ­wealthiest women.

Yet cracking the “diamond ceiling” appears to be getting harder. Gabriel Zucman, an economics professor at the University of California in Berkeley, reports that the higher you move up the income distribution, the lower the proportion of women.

At the current pace, Zucman predicts it will take nearly 100 years for women to make up half the population of the top one per-centers. “We are still a long, long way from gender equality at the top,” he told the New York Times.

Moreover, the Australian Financial Review notes that of the nearly 27,000 women worth $30 million or more, only a third are self-made. (Interestingly, in 2015, more than half of the female billionaires in Asia were self-made, compared with 19% in the US, according to a report from Swiss bank UBS and PwC consultants.)

Right now, the wealthiest self-made woman in the US is Diane Hendricks, a founder of a building materials firm in Wisconsin and worth US$4.3 billion, according to Forbes. As a comparison, Oprah Winfrey is next at US$2.9 billion.

So, why aren’t there more women at the top? Gattung believes sexism is still rife in this country’s workplaces, with a much narrower range of acceptable management styles.

“If you’re tough, you’re ‘a bitch’, if you’re not tough enough, you’re ‘too soft’, and yet we have to be authentic to ring true,” Gattung told RNZ last year. It’s a point reinforced by Julia Pimsleur, the US founder of multimillion-dollar Little Pim language instruction company. Discrimination in the executive suite remains a stubborn force, she recently told the New York Times.

Models of leadership tend to be male, adds Gattung. But as Pimsleur has pointed out, “Women want the triple win – money, meaning and mobility. They want the big dollars. But they also want to do something that adds value. And they went freedom and flexibility.”

Someone with a unique perspective on female wealth is US entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt. She founded Sirius Satellite Radio and is chief executive of American Pharmaceuticals.

In 2013, she was the country’s highest-paid female CEO, with compensation of US$38 million. Yet she is on the record as saying her success isn’t a victory for women. She was born as Martin and underwent gender ­reassignment surgery in 1994. “I’ve only been a woman for half of my life, and there’s no doubt that I’ve benefited hugely from being a guy,” she told ­Fortune magazine.

* Staff writers

Photography: Hagen Hopkins; Getty Images; Stephen A’Court

This article was first published in the February 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.