Kiwis slow to accept women in high places

Ansuya Naidoo – 

Kiwis slow to accept-Ansuya NaidooIt has been widely discussed in recent years that women’s increased participation and success in the workforce is a critical component affecting the future of organisations and the New Zealand economy.

We know that women are powerful drivers of economic growth. Economists across the world have cited strong macroeconomic reasons for a more robust representation of women at all levels of an organisation, with some of them asserting that closing the gender gap would boost the level of New Zealand’s GDP by as much as 10%.

Increasing income levels through work or entrepreneurship would accrue direct benefit for local communities, as women spend more of their available income within the local economy. This would have the flow-on effect of lessening the need for government or NGO support.

Key drivers

Leading research also tells us that beyond social and moral responsibility, the key driver in fostering a diverse culture is the business advantage gained.

Organisations can improve business performance, innovation and creativity with a diverse mix of employees and perspectives, particularly at senior leadership level, as well as improving business performance and innovation.

It is vital that leaders in business understand how diverse cultural norms, practices and communication styles affect our interactions and ability to meet our customers’ needs, as well as how we attract, engage and motivate our teams and employees.

Performance advantage

A McKinsey & Company Report (2011) states that Fortune 500 companies with three or more women on the board gain ‘a significant performance advantage’ over those with the fewest.

It found that companies with the most women on their senior teams showed superior growth in equity, operational results and share price.

BNZ emphasis

For some years now, BNZ has placed considerable emphasis on enabling gender balance in our organisation, believing that to remain relevant, large organisations, such as banks, need to reflect the communities in which we operate and the diverse customer base we serve. While competition is getting tough, consumers are increasingly sophisticated and the pace of change is dizzying.

The reality is that new market-leading ideas and perspectives require new thinking. And new thinking needs an environment in which it can spring forward.

At BNZ we have found that a more diverse workforce leads to fresh thinking, new perspectives and better decisions which ultimately lead to better returns for shareholders.

The bank’s work in this area has been acknowledged by the UN Women and the United Nations Global Compact for promoting women in the workforce.

Establishing culture

However, it is not just good enough to bring together a diverse mix of people; it is about having a culture that engages and unleashes everybody’s full potential in the workplace.

While each organisation must tailor diversity initiatives to suit their particular company and industry, BNZ found that there are a number of pre-requisites for change that are key to any diversity journey.

Clear leadership: Visible CEO and leadership endorsement for the approach and interventions are critical.

Clear link to business strategy: Commitment from senior management is key but if they cannot see a clear link to the business strategy with benefits, it will be pigeonholed as an HR initiative or programme.

Consistent repeated communication: Awareness drives change, so the business case needs to be communicated repeatedly.

Refinement of policy and process: From the board downwards and throughout the organisation, we reviewed and reworked all policies and processes. This includes recruitment practices to ensure the organisation is attractive to all talent pools.

Courage to challenge the norm: This is about cultural change for organisations as outdated corporate attitudes and processes can often be a key barrier. And it’s not a one off – this will take time.

Encourage dialogue and debate: Many of the initiatives and changes implemented will involve a period of debate and a mind-set shift in order to get buy-in. It is important to build a culture where dialogue and debate is respected and everyone has a voice.

Set targets or clear identifiable measures:

Measurement is vital – what gets measured gets done. BNZ sets itself targets which are tracked and reported across a number of variables, including gender.

These targets are tied to the executive team’s individual performance scorecards.

Talent identification processes are crucial: For many minority groups, they may not be in a position to be noticed, may not be getting opportunities for expansion or simply are not being ‘found’ and put into the pipeline for further development opportunities. This needs to be highlighted and specifically addressed.

Unimpressive performance

We’ve still got a long way to go as a nation.

While the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2012 ranked New Zealand sixth globally, in terms of gender equality and political empowerment, The New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation 2012 felt that New Zealand is making “slow, incremental, but unspectacular progress” for women in many areas.

The biggest challenge was, and still is, achieving greater representation of women at senior management levels. Women in New Zealand still make up fewer than 35% of judges, fewer than 25% of top academic positions and fewer than 20% in top legal partnerships. Research shows almost half of New Zealand’s women workers are in occupations more than 80% female and that these female dominated occupations tend to be lower paid. Women are still under-represented in higher-level jobs.

This under-utilisation of talent is not a good situation – as a nation we need to ensure that everyone is fully engaged and economically productive to drive growth, irrespective of gender.

Empowering women to participate fully in the economy can occur in different ways; from empowering entrepreneurship and work at local community levels, to increased opportunities in middle management of larger business to business leadership roles.

Each of these presents a variety of challenges, each is important in not just providing economic opportunities but in ensuring talent can realise its full potential.

Ansuya Naidoo is Head of Indian Community Banking at BNZ, Title Sponsor of the Indian Newslink Indian Business Awards 2015 for the fifth successive year.

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