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.

Sharon Hunter

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.

Diane Fore­man

“If you have a woman at the board ta­ble, you will have a bet­ter busi­ness,” says mil­lion­aire en­tre­pre­neur

Diane Fore­man.

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.”

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