White Men in Charge: It's Not Just Auckland Council

A selection of State Sector senior managers, top company directors, and political leaders.
A selection of State Sector senior managers, top company directors, and political leaders.

I remember the chief executive of a company I used to work for flapping his hands in mock exasperation as he explained his efforts to hire more women into leadership roles. “We’ve tried,” he said, “but we just can’t find any suitable candidates.” There were about 2.1 million women in New Zealand at the time.

He looked very similar to the guys running Auckland Council. It was singled out in the Herald yesterday for employing an all-white, all-male, all-rich leadership team. This may shock you to your core, but today Newsworthy can reveal that this problem is actually quite widespread! White, middle-aged men don’t just run the Council: they head most of our political parties and major State Sector organisations and fill nearly all the leadership positions in our companies, including, to an extent, MediaWorks and its flagship show, Newsworthy.

Newsworthy Executive Producer and white man Jono Hutchison

They’re not losing any ground either. If anything, their demographic is becoming more powerful.

Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Jackie Blue says she felt “queasy” looking at photos of the Council’s leadership team. “I saw those faces staring back at me and it made me feel a bit sick. It’s the same old, same old, and nothing’s changed. There’s never been a good time and it’s arguably gotten worse.”

She has the stats to back her up. Since 2013, the NZX has been tracking the gender balance of company boards. Last year, 14.4% of board positions were filled by women - up incrementally from 12.4% the year before. However, the number of women in senior management in the private sector appears to be plummeting. A survey of 100 New Zealand companies by Grant Thornton International shows that in 2014, women held 31% of the management positions. This year that figure fell to 19%. It’s the first time we’ve dropped behind Australia, which has been at 22% for three years running.

The situation doesn’t look like it’s going to get better soon, Grant Thornton International partner Stacey Davies says. Only about 7% of companies have plans to hire more women into senior management roles - down from 13% in 2013. Less than 1% have a mentoring program for potential female executives. In Australia, 7% of companies have the programs in place. The global average is 11%.

To get a sense of the pace of progress, it's useful to go back to the Human Rights Commission's 2012 census on female participation in business. It singled out TrustPower and Sky TV for having no women on their boards. TrustPower still doesn't have a woman on its board. Sky TV has one.

Ms Davies says we’ve gone from being a leader to a straggler when it comes to female participation levels in senior management. “Historically, we’ve always performed much better than Australia… given we like to think of ourselves as a forward-thinking country - we gave women the vote all those years ago - I think we’ve gotten a bit complacent.”

Meanwhile, female participation in public sector leadership has been flatlining for nearly a decade. Last year, women held 41.7% of the board positions in State sector organisations. In 2010, they held 40.7%. The figure pushed much past 42%. The glacial pace of change in the sector is particularly disappointing for Dr Blue. “Quite frankly, there’s no excuse for it,” she says. “We’re talking about responsible Ministers who appoint people to these boards. It’s their choice.”

There are disappointingly few stats on the ethnic breakdown of boards and senior management teams, but if anything the situation is even more dire, Dr Blue says. In general, having more white men on boards breeds having more white men on boards, she says. “We feel most comfortable with people who look like us, and sound like us, and talk like us.” Or as Ms Davies puts it, “like hires like”.

Newsworthy is never content just using other people’s statistics. We carried out a robust gender diversity analysis of our own using a statistical technique called ‘Looking at photos of the senior managers of major companies and State Sector organisations’. If you have any doubts about our statistical method, please refer your complaints to the Labour Party.

Most boards of top NZX companies have between seven and 12 members. One or two are female. Non-Pakeha seem to be, for the most part, banned. If you melded all the director photos together, you would get a 55-year-old white man with hair retreating from his cranium. He would be smiling in front of a white background wearing what I would describe as a ‘business smile’.

Here’s a rough breakdown of the boards of some of New Zealand’s top companies.

Looking at those figures is quite depressing, and I’m a middle-class white man. Dr Blue says the problem isn’t just that we’re lagging behind on gender equality in business: it’s that we’re not doing that much about it. She’s calling on Ministers to actually come through on their stated goal of ensuring public sector boards are made up of 45% women, and on Government to apply special measures to identify and promote more women, Māori, Pacific, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities into senior leadership positions. She wants the NZX to ensure all listed companies develop a gender diversity policy, and report on its implementation. In the absence of all that happening ages ago, she wants it to happen right now.

“The message is ‘get with it’. Get with the 21st Century.”