It might seem like a strange question coming from me.  Me, a woman who has worked in a male dominated industry for over 20 years, who has championed other women, coaching them to strive to reach their own goals and potential. Me, who tells anyone who listens their company needs a woman on their board, women in management roles, women in leadership.

To preface the rest of this blog – I find myself worrying that the increased exposure within mainstream media on the need for women in leadership roles will result in over-exposure and fatigue of this topic. I am focusing on one narrow dimension of equality for women, there are still cultures and countries where women experience limited or no quality of life or equality – a conversation we should never lose sight of or stop pressing until their situations change so that every woman is safe and treated equally.

Recent media attention and coverage of the need for women in leadership positions is driven in part by pressure from governments and governance agencies around the world wanting to increase representation of women at the top levels, some going as far as introducing representation compliance guidelines for example the UK looking for 25% of board roles on the FTSE 100 companies to be held by women.

There is no question this needs to happen but appointments should be on the merits of the individuals we need to focus on changing perspectives –

  • by breaking down previous generations views that men make better leaders when we all know anyone can be a great leader
  • and the disestablishment of “old boys networks” as a means of engagement.

With the introduction of quotas, targets and guidelines there is a risk that everyone – men and women alike – will begin to question whether a woman is in her role due to a quota or her own abilities, undermining the successful women who have achieved their positions through hard work, talent and perseverance.

“Bored with the women on boards debate? Me too. Here’s the real problem” totally nails the issue in one headline! 

When I was growing up our own government promoted a campaign called “Girls can do anything” the basic premise of the campaign still exists “It made economic sense for women to break out of traditional, narrow occupational choices – ‘men’s work’ tended to be better paid and was more likely to offer the chance to build a business. It was generally more prestigious, and in some cases allowed more independence, than equivalent ‘women’s work’.” In researching this blog I couldn’t find any good studies representing whether “Girls can do anything” was a successful campaign or not, but looking around my city I would say it was, women are generally well represented within the world of business which demonstrates change has occurred within 1 generation.

So back to my question – is it time to stop talking about women in leadership? and just talk about leadership?

Sheryl Sandberg would say no, her Lean-In best seller and subsequent campaigns, Ted talks and promotional tours have brought a new dimension to this conversation. Her question to an audience on whether you were called bossy as a child hooked me – girls are called bossy, boys are called leaders simple as that, a stigma is created from that young age. As an advocate of women in leadership Sheryl has the ear of the media and is gaining a strong following on a global basis, her promotion of women in business is fantastic but …. is the resulting coverage starting to have a negative effect?

It’s not just the media provoking me to ask this question, I attended a local business leaders lunch recently and one of the men at our table pointed out of the 250+ people in the room only ~20% of those were women. I found myself in a discussion with another group of men about which of the “usual” women on boards here in NZ are the good ones – I was surprised to hear they considered there is a small pool of women who are the usual suspects on our top boards holding seats on many boards a fulfilling a gender diversity requirement of many organisations.

Our local NZ media have contributed to my question as well, here is a short list:

  • This article was the tipping point prompting me to blog – NZX ‘has duty’ to impose gender quotas in NZ boardrooms. I don’t question the requirement, I do question whether we can break this systemic issue with a stick? just because the UK are doing it should we? are there other models we could employ?
    • The headline Bored with the Women on Boards Debate above, is one indication that sentiment towards the suggested board representation in the UK is evolving if it was ever positive.
  • The NZ Labour party policy “man ban” aiming for 50% of elected MP’s to be women, proportional representation of our population but forced by a quota policy via methods such as not standing men in some electorates eliminating the choice
    • this policy apparently drove men away from the party but I can imagine it drove women away too, we want to be elected on our own merits not because there is a quota.

Time for a conclusion – is it time to stop talking about women in leadership? On balance I think no we need to elevate the discussion but focus on the positive impact on NZ companies who have appointed women to their boards and increase media coverage of the successful women who are leading our companies. Mentoring and developing women in business through positive leadership into leadership roles themselves and could we introduce a “girls can do anything” equivalent development programme without being too cringe-worthy?

I will continue to ponder and research this topic, it’s one I am passionate about, there must be a model or approach we could employ as an alternative to introducing quotas. What do you think? would love to hear, Vic.


A few articles on the impact of women in leadership: