Women in business:
If women can now do anything, why aren’t more of us gathered around the country’s board tables? Thérèse Henkin interviews three of our most successful businesswomen to find out how they made it to the top and what might be keeping others from the company
making it to board level
This year, not one female was nominated for the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame. Nor were any women selected for the 50 Top Company Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) in 2016. Gender equality is considered one of New Zealand’s defining values. Our appreciation for diversity is something we hold near and dear as a nation. Yet there are little more than half as many female chief executives as there are male. In the workforce it seems men are still favoured for leadership positions, and women are significantly under-represented around the boardroom table. Some Kiwi women, however, are bucking this trend by proving they are just as talented, dedicated and determined as their male colleagues. Sharon Hunter, Theresa Gattung and Diane Foreman are some of New Zealand’s most successful businesswomen. Between them they have founded several multi-million dollar companies, sat on dozens of executive boards and mentored hundreds of business people. The challenges they’ve navigated and the obstacles they’ve overcome are a testament that women can do anything. They talk to The Australian Women’s Weekly about how women can be successful in the workplace.
Mother-of-two Sharon Hunter started her first business – a computing company called PC Direct – when she was just 23 years old. It was the beginning of a career that went from strength to strength.
She is aware, however, that being successful in business is not always easy for women. “There is no getting around the fact that women have big obligations to their families and that’s the elephant in the room,” she says. “It’s not even right to say that, because we all know about it and nobody is afraid to talk about it, but it’s still there affecting the way women succeed.”
The devoted mum hasn’t worked full time since she sold PC Direct. However, her life hasn’t become any less hectic. She still sits on a variety of boards, both commercial and not-forprofit, she is a trustee of 15 years for the Starship Foundation, and acts as an ambassador for ovarian cancer awareness as well as mentoring other women. But she is at ease with her busy lifestyle and enjoys the freedom and flexibility of her work.
Being a mum has been her biggest challenge in her career, she admits. “It’s difficult to fit it all in when you have a family… having enough on that it keeps me stimulated, but also making sure family is at the front and centre.”
She compares her life to a Missoni tapestry made up of “wiggles, stripes, colours and craziness”.
“I have never been one for grand career plans. I’m not one of those set-your-10-year-goals kind of people. I know all the rule books say you should, but it’s just not me. I am open to opportunities.”
This opportunistic attitude has proved a valuable tool throughout her career and she is now excited about doing more in the business world as her kids are nearing the end of high school and university.
Sharon believes she has been very lucky because she hasn’t come up against the typical challenges and obstacles many women face in getting ahead in their career. While she hasn’t personally experienced any prejudice based on her gender, she says she is the only woman at the table in every board meeting she attends, with the exception of one.
“I think I was blissfully ignorant, which was great, because from time to time I was probably metaphorically patted on the head and sent away, but I was just too thick-skinned to worry
about it,” she says with a laugh. “If you were to lay out all the really good organisations like Facebook,
Snapchat, Microsoft and Google and ask if there were many women on the board of those companies, I would say there probably aren’t.”
Sharon imagines women are under-represented at the board table and in senior management in larger, public companies, but says the computer sector was very egalitarian when she joined.
“The computer industry in New Zealand, because it was a very young sector, it was really equal. You were either good at what you did or you weren’t. It wasn’t about being a man or a woman. You could either deliver on your budgets or you couldn’t.
“So I think I have been very fortunate to have found that. Had I become a lawyer, doctor, engineer or something more traditional, I think I would have come up against a lot more bias and a lot more challenging environments, because research tells us that some sectors are much harder for women.”
The expert multitasker believes there is the culture of “presence in the office”, which companies need to move away from in order to give women the opportunity to succeed in leadership and management roles.
As a mother, Sharon says your schedule often revolves around when your children need to be where, rather than typical nine-to-five office hours. So she says organisations need to become more focused on output and results, as opposed to how many hours you spend at your desk.
“We need to be thinking that as long as you’re producing results, taking a company forward, taking your team forward and delivering on the collective goals the organisation has, regardless of how you achieve that in terms of your hours in the office, then that should be valued. I think women will then be able to work on terms that give them the flexibility to meet all their obligations – for family, for a better balance in life and for their careers.”
There was no great planning. I didn’t get up one morning and say today I’ll be in plastics and tomorrow I’ll be in ice-cream.
“If you have a woman at the board table, you will have a better business,” says millionaire entrepreneur
She is confident in this statement because she knows she is right. International research shows that companies with at least one female executive on the board perform significantly better, have a greater return on equity, higher earnings and a stronger growth in stock than those with an all-male board.
In the past three decades, Diane has sold two multi million dollar companies, invested in a number of smaller businesses, become New Zealand Entrepreneur of the Year and was named one of Asia’s 50 Most Powerful Women. But she says there are still far too few women around the board table in 2016.
The successful businesswoman found that being a mother and being a woman have been two of her biggest career challenges.
“There’s still a long way to go until women are accepted round the board table. It’s still a long way to go until people meet you and listen to what you have to say instead of judging you on your sex, or educational criteria or what you’re wearing,” she says.
As she speaks it’s difficult to imagine that someone so effortlessly self-assured could ever have experienced anything other than success. But, she explains, “You just feel the vibe and it’s almost like people are sitting there waiting for you to do or say something wrong. You’ve got to be really tough and resilient to be a female entrepreneur.”
The woman who has mastered this resilience says she can see how the inequality has existed for as long as it has. “People like the status quo and nobody likes change,” she says. “Most men are comfortable with the way things are. They find it challenging and confronting to have this blonde turn up who wants to talk their game and play with their marbles.”
Diane started in the manufacturing business and says in those days, and even now, it is a traditionally male dominated industry. Her breakthrough venture came with her marriage to businessman Bill Foreman, who mentored Diane, and she eventually went on to run and oversee the selling of his plastics company, Trigon.
Although the couple has since parted, Diane credits her huge success in the business world to Bill, who she says encouraged her to go out and use the skills he had taught her to take on her own business ventures.
“Bill said to me, ‘You’ve got this experience, but everybody always says you’re only good because I taught you what to do or because it’s my business. You really need to do it for you. So I’m going to take a step back and you go out and do what you want to do.’”
This is exactly what Diane did. The sale of Trigon made enough money for both her and Bill to never have to work again, but Diane went out and started Emerald Group – an icecream manufacturer with well-known brands Movenpick and New Zealand Natural under its umbrella.
“People always say to me, what’s your exit strategy? And I tell them, my exit strategy is to build an amazing business and then you won’t need an exit strategy, because people will be banging on your door to buy it,” she says, laughing.
Diane admits she has been very lucky in her career, and her biggest piece of advice for women is to be open-minded and embrace new opportunities.
“I think once you get a hunger and a passion for it, the path just opens up. There was no great planning. I didn’t get up one morning and say today I’ll be in plastics and tomorrow I’m going to be in ice-cream.”
But it hasn’t always been an easy ride. Diane says she sacrificed a lot to get where she is and her children have decided it’s too tough to follow in their mother’s footsteps.
“My daughter has said to me before that she would have preferred me at home baking the birthday cake than in San Francisco ordering it,” she laughs.
She says juggling family and a career is difficult and while her children got to travel a great deal thanks to her work, they often say they would have liked her to choose a less demanding career. “They have had too many meals with Dad on one phone and me on the other. Or being told shush, this is important.”
Diane says one of the most surprising obstacles a woman in business has to overcome is other women. “Women are often other women’s worst enemy.
They put their shoulders back and elbows out to keep you down. Because it’s been so hard for women to get to the top, they think, ‘Why should I make it easy for X, Y and Z?’”
She believes that before women can expect men to stop putting obstacles in their way, they need to stop making it difficult for others of their gender to be successful. “There’s this saying that you should leave the ladder down. But I don’t believe you should leave the ladder down – I think you have to crawl back down that ladder and pull other women up with you.”
She says it is the responsibility of all successful women to give back to others who are struggling to make it.
She also believes businesses need to focus on hiring the best people for the best jobs and not let historical gender roles and expectations prevent them from making wise business decisions.
“It’s simple. If people only cared about shareholder wealth and the good of their staff and businesses, gender shouldn’t be an issue. When the best research in the world says if you’ve got women around that top table you’re going to have a better business, that’s all you really need to know.”