Women under-represented as leaders in New Zealand - so what to do?

The first nation to give women the vote now has few women leading newspapers, businessness and political parties. So this international women's day, what can we do about that?

To uncover and address the many reasons why New Zealand women continue to be under-represented as leaders, a friend and I started Women’s Futures Month for March 2012 from our home city of Christchurch, the birthplace of the suffrage movement.

I was depressed to discover that even though women on average are now obtaining more and higher qualifications than men, the proportion of New Zealand women as leaders has remained relatively stagnant the last decade.

Women now make up less than a quarter of party leaders in parliament, less than 15% of major newspaper editors, less than 10% of Royal Society fellows and less than 10% of CEOs in the top 100 publicly listed companies.

According to both domestic and international research, there is still an often subconscious misperception that women do not make good leaders are widely held by both women and men. This is despite studies showing there are huge business benefits from more representative senior management boards. Thus this isn't just an issue of fairness, it's an issue of limiting the potential of half our population for no good reason.

World renowned Psychology of Gender expert from North Western University Dr Alice Eagly notes that:

“the dearth of women in high positions does not have a single, simple cause. Rather, women encounter a labyrinth—that is, they navigate complex, often indirect, and discontinuous paths toward leadership. Understanding these challenges is the key to overcoming them and eventually removing the obstacles that have made women rare in powerful roles.”

In some cases, women undermine their own abilities, or don't ask to be promoted - but our attempted climb to the top is also affected by more widespread societal biases against women. I don't mean to blame anyone here, but let's acknowledge these biases, and start working to counteract them, consciously. The reactions to my press release on Yahoo! are great examples of why we shouldn't get too complacent about gender equality (and perhaps revealing of the calibre of Yahoo! users).

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, which is today, March 8, is "connecting girls, inspiring futures". That prompted us to keep our approach positive, after the backlash-to-the-backlash that has occurred about the representation of women in the media.

While it's anyone's right to speak out against degrading portrayals of women, we wanted to make sure another important angle on the debate was also considered – how can we balance out these representations with more positive ones so women at least have some strong role models to aspire to?

Amongst the many Women’s Day events happening worldwide, we're holding a series of panel discussions where audiences can hear from and engage with the exceptions to the rule: women leading in the fields of science & engineering, politics, business and the media. We're also hosting a film screening and a social potluck to connect more women to work on this issue.

If this sounds familiar, it's because we were inspired by Sundance film-turned-social-movement Miss Representation, which has drawn global attention to the limiting media representations of women and girls. Women’s Futures Month events are Christchurch based, but we're hoping to generate widespread forward-looking discussion on the Facebook page. Feel free to join us. 

Key women’s events during March:

Women’s Futures Month

International Women’s Day NZ events

Walk for Women 2012

Get involved:

Tweet links to pictures, videos or profiles of leading New Zealand women, tagged @womensfutures and #likealeadinglady

Join the conversation at the Women's Futures Month Facebook page