“The reason there is no diversity on boards is because we haven’t actively sought to overturn the status quo, which is the result of historic discrimination and bias and unconscious bias. So we just have to make an active effort to find those talented people. And through attrition, it can happen. You can replace people,” she told TVNZ’s Q+A programme on Sunday.
A quota could be one tool to do this, although only if it did not have “perverse consequences,” Ms Genter said.
Initiatives such as the Future Directors scheme, where young executives sit on a board for 12-18 months, the Institute of Directors’ Mentoring for Diversity programme and the Global Women network have all had some impact. But change on boards is glacial.
“The problem for New Zealand is unless we start to get momentum on these statistics, then future governments may well look at quotas as the only way to drive this forward. And that’s not a good thing.
“The risk is, a woman appointed to fill a quota will be deemed by male directors around the table as just there to get the numbers. Whereas all the women I’ve worked with on boards over the years, my god, they are superb directors. They are really top class and add so much value, and their male colleagues regard them as an integral part of the board.”
Earlier this year, Mrs Withers and Global Women directors Vanessa Stoddart and Michele Embling sent out a “gently worded, supportive letter” to 29 companies which had no women on the board, offering assistance with connections.
“Most were positive and grateful for the practical assistance. But there were one or two that took it in a way that was less constructive.
“So there is no excuse talent isn’t available.”
But unless progress is made, a government might bring quotas in, he says.
“Quotas should be the last resort but I trust they are not required.”
McKinsey research shows companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 21% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians, and those with racial and ethnic diversity are 33% more likely.
“It’s an ongoing discussion about how to move the dial,” IoD Governance Leadership Centre manager Felicity Caird says.
“Quotas aren’t generally popular because it’s really about a culture change. There are a lot of leading companies out there which have thought about that cultural change within their boards and organisations. Those champions are trying to lead the way.
“We believe change can be made and programmes out there are making some progress. But it is slow progress, you can’t deny that.”
She says the IoD remains “hopeful rather than confident” that change will happen soon.
These ranged from “I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment” to “most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board” and “all the ‘good’ women have already been snapped up.”
The percentage of board members of FTSE 350 companies increased from 12.5% in 2011 to 27.7% in 2017 and only 28% of them have women making up at least a third of their directors – Britain is aiming for all FTSE 350 companies to have at least a third of their directors female by 2020.
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