Amicus Curiae: Where Are The Women? Gender Representation on State Sector Boards

Elizabeth Murray, leading contributor

In a public sector that purports to represent all New Zealanders, we would expect to see diversity in the appointments made to various governmental positions. However, in the latest Ministry of Women’s Affairs inquiry into the ratio of male to female government appointments has found that this does not seem to be the case.

After finding that only 41% of state sector boards in 2004 were made up of women, a target was set to reach 50% female appointments to state sector boards and committees by 2010. In 2014, that number has increased by a measly 0.7% to 41.7% average across all boards.

The gender representation on state sector boards looks even more dismal when looking at each minister’s appointments individually. Sixteen ministers appointed less than 40% women to their boards and five appointed less than 30% (including the Prime Minister). Simon Bridges and Murray McCully have appointed women into less than a quarter of the positions available (24.56% and 23.63% respectively).

Various ministers have defended their appointments. Their arguments have been based around meritocracy, fewer women in particular fields (for instance in the building and construction sector), and that they themselves do not make all of the appointments.

Meritocracy and a lack of women applying for higher positions are explanations often used to justify the lack of good gender ratio in high-ranking positions. As Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Dr Jackie Blue argues however, the argument that there are not enough qualified women is unconvincing because New Zealand women are some of the most educated in the world.

Moreover, the emphasis on ‘meritocracy’ can actually lead to more unequal outcomes, with the focus less on providing on a diversity of viewpoints and more about people who are believed to be the most qualified. In a study produced by Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management, the focus on ‘meritocracy’ has been found to increase systemic inequalities in the hiring, firing, promotion and awarding of bonuses to employees. When an organisation focuses on employing a meritocratic standard in assessing employees (or potential employees), they operate under a misguided presumption that their decision-making is fair and unbiased, which leads them to neglect reflecting on how individual prejudices and stereotypes could potentially cloud their judgment. This leads to the unconscious adoption of stereotypes (often based on gender and ethnicity) in the appointment of workers, usually leaving a less equal outcome than if ‘meritocracy’ had not been prioritised. Because of systemic sexism and racism in hiring employees it is important to be vigilant in ensuring that individual biases do not effect decisions by mistakenly presuming that these issues are already fixed.

The issue of unequal gender ratio in appointments has not only been found in the appointment of central governmental boards and committees. The problem has also recently been seen in an inquiry into gender and ethnic makeup of Auckland Council’s boards and executive management teams. Men held all 99 positions and 88 of them were European.

Claims by those like the Prime Minister that they do not make the appointments themselves is not a good enough reason to justify the lack of diverse appointments. Although ministers may not appoint every position themselves, they still oversee the appointment process. Ministers should be ensuring the staff that do make appointments have diversity in mind and ensure a commitment to closing the gender gap. As they are elected to act on behalf of New Zealanders, ministers should be ensuring their boards and committees represent those New Zealanders.

Ensuring equal gender appointments across the public sector is not just something that is beneficial, but imperative. It has been shown that diverse boards (both by gender and ethnicity) function better than those without diversity. It increases diversity of ideas, viewpoints, and opinions. Moreover, it is paramount that the government should represent the diversity of the public that it purports to act on behalf of. This comes with ensuring that there is a reasonably equal distribution of male and female appointments in state sectors. New Zealanders want to know that their viewpoints are being considered when decisions that impact them are being made.

A commitment to diversity within our public sector is necessary to create the best outcome for New Zealanders. The government should re-engage with its target of 50% women across state sector boards and committees to ensure that voices of all different types of New Zealanders are heard.

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