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Sitting at a table: Giving Women a fair shot

Chartered Accountant Fellow Michael Stiassny advocates for equality – both for women and ethnic minorities. He aims to make New Zealand a better place, through his work as the Chairman of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Whai Rawa, Tower Insurance and New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA).

A century ago New Zealand and Australia were the two international trailblazers in giving women the vote. Yet Stiassny doesn’t see New Zealand as being ahead of the game in comparison with the rest of the world, and he believes the road to equality still has a long way to go. Consulting firm Grant Thornton International's annual Women in Business report, says New Zealand companies have slid backwards in their proportion of women on leadership teams to an 18 per cent low. 
Stiassny believes that “we’ve failed fundamentally in getting women to C-Suite and we need to rectify that.”

Benefits of having women at C-Suite and on boards
Statistics reveal that there is a correlation between companies and boards’ higher financial performance with more women at the top. Studies show that the chances of bankruptcy are much lower when there’s a woman on the board. Women are more likely to reduce company expenditure because they prefer to use cooperation and collaboration to solve problems rather than throwing money at an issue. Companies with more women at the top are also more likely to be more agile, innovative and generally have better processes, which all contribute towards more successful outcomes.

Tech companies with a more equal proportion of women to men perform better by about 3%, in terms of return on equity. They are more profitable and have better long-term prospects. Furthermore, customers are generally happier.
However, Stiassny says, it’s not just a discussion about women having seats on boards. “Having women on boards is not sending the signal that equality is in place.”
The process needs to move beyond meeting gender quotas and on to identifying women for their abilities. He refers to the current environment and the “gender versus ability” debate, demonstrated by the troubled wealth giant AMP in Australia, which revealed the lack of robust processes involved in recruiting women onto boards. The AMP backlash reinforced “the perception that women only get onto boards because they’re supported by a patron or are just exceedingly lucky to get to the top.”
As a leader, Stiassny chooses the most promising fellow leaders based on their ability, not gender. At the same time, he says there needs to be a recognition of the unconscious biases that exist, a reframing of mindset to accept that women can do it because they’re genuinely competent, as well as an acceptance that diversity at the table is essential to success and fairness.

What’s needed to achieve gender equality?
Stiassny outlines five key steps towards improving gender equality: 

  • Having open-minded, responsible leaders who are passionate about diversity
  • Instilling awareness of unconscious bias
  • Actively making women in managerial positions more visible
  • Implementing recruitment initiatives to help women advance their careers
  • Making gender equality a progressive process – if we keep chipping away, we will get there

Leadership is key to change
Stiassny believes what’s required is “a bottom up not top down approach”. It’s incongruent to think that once you get the C-Suite right then the rest falls into place, he says. We need to start with leaders and recruit women up through the ranks to management.

This can be done only through a leader being open minded, responsible and passionate about diversity. So, why aren’t we (the business world) helping females to become CEOs? According to Stiassny a leader or CEO who is a “man’s man” won’t help create a gender equal environment.
“As a leader, you need to make sure you encourage everyone to have their voice, and spend time ensuring people in minorities come forward so everyone gets a fair shot.”
“That’s why the #MeToo movement is so amazing,” he says, it raises awareness of how far we have to go with gender inequalities, shining a light on the sexual abuse faced by ordinary women everywhere and the culture of male entitlement.
Stiassny believes that some people are still uncomfortable with having a lot of gender diversity. Yet, he says, organisations are now realising the benefits of a diverse culture, sometimes for selfish reasons; in terms of bolstering their reputation by meeting gender quotas, and the reality that a diversity of perspectives actually does create new ideas.
Recruitment initiatives

One initiative Stiassny is involved in is Future Directors, which he launched in 2013 to help develop the next generation of directors, by allowing candidates to gain valuable experience through sitting at the board table of a New Zealand company for a 12-month period.
As a board member of his old public school Stiassny observes that “women as CEOs, in the newspaper and on TV are going to be far more visible and powerful to a school girl than women on boards.”

Who are the female trailblazers?
Stiassny believes the heroes and heroines are often ordinary people with passion and principle who chip away every day, making great inroads to reinforce equality by voicing what’s unacceptable and what needs to change.

“We have to make New Zealand a better place. The big social issues are the same as those facing all western societies – the parity between rich and poor, the disparity with our Indigenous population and a living wage.”
Stiassy agrees NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a very obvious role model who is inspiring young women. She exemplifies what unprecedented success at the top looks like for women, how equality is possible, as well as challenging unconscious biases about the ability to juggle a career in senior leadership as well as a family.
Ardern was part of the speaker line-up at our inaugural Women in Business Conference in 2013 paving the way for fellow inspiring speakers like Stiassny, who will take up the mantle this year.

Full article can be found here - Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand.


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